Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear

“What you focus on becomes reality. Everybody carries anger inside. But also happiness.” – Edwin

I am not an outdoorsy person. I am not much of a camper and I have never been all that good with my hands. If I was to be stranded on a deserted island, I would probably have a pretty rough time staying alive. In Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear, Cole, a teenager potentially on his way to jail for assaulting a fellow student, has his sentence commuted to be a one year wilderness experience, alone on a deserted island on the southeast coast of Alaska. This is meant to be a time of reflection and rebirth for Cole, which is a major theme throughout the novel, but he quickly derails the entire incident. First, he burns down the small cabin that was built for him, including all of the provisions provided for him. Then he decides to try and swim across a large channel of terribly cold water to try and escape, which he fails miserably at. And finally, he attacks a giant white bear, just to prove that he is tougher than the bear. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go well for Cole and he is left mauled, starving, and lying on a beach in Alaska. The story becomes all about Cole’s deathbed-like experience when he realizes why he has acted out so much over the years and how he can attempt to change.

This theme of rediscovery and healing drives the narrative forward. As Cole spends time on the island, acting brashly, the chapters are mixed with flashbacks of the meetings and experiences Cole went through which landed him on the island, such as his act of violence towards his schoolmate, Peter, his experience with the Circle Justice group in which he lied constantly to try and avoid jail time, and even his retelling of the abuse his father had doled out throughout his childhood. Cole’s epiphany that he has while lying near death on the beach allows him to come to the realization that he acts out because of his need to be in control and to be feared, because that is how he always viewed his father. His realization leads him to seek more help and earns him a second trip to the island, after six months of physical therapy. This is where his real process of rebirth occurs. He learns to channel his anger. Not squelch it, but control it. His growth over time allows him to seek forgiveness, which is the second major theme in the story.

As Cole reaches the end of his one year sentence, he has learned to channel his anger and he has adopted the natural world as a place for him to connect and learn. But, the target of his earlier assault, Peter, has taken a turn for the worse psychologically, and attempts suicide. It becomes Cole’s responsibility to try and convince Peter that his life has value and meaning, and through this, he will hopefully find Peter’s forgiveness for his act of violence. This second journey of redemption and forgiveness is where Cole is truly tested, and it is an interesting journey that he takes to try and help Peter overcome his psychological issues.

In the end, I wasn’t a huge fan of Touching Spirit Bear. I felt the characters were too unbelievable, Cole specifically, and his reactions to things and choices early in the novel left me more frustrated than engaged. I think there are some students that would definitely connect with the broken anti-hero who seeks redemption concept, but it just did not work for me. While the story is one that would be great for many students to read, because it leads them to think outside of themselves and be less selfish, it was not a book that kept me up at night, wanting to read more. If I were to use this story in a Lit Circle setting, I would use it for grade 9 and above and pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, as they all deal with a troubled past, a challenging experience, or a neglectful parent. Touching Spirit Bear might lead some to find peace and rebirth in nature, but, for an indoorsman like me, it fell flat.

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A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone

“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” – Ishmael Beah

One of the most frustrating things about being a teacher in North America is the amount of entitlement I see in my students on a daily basis. I see it in the uproar they create when I confiscate their phones, the malaise they show when they are reprimanded for handing an item in late, or the outright expectation that in the end their work ethic, or lack thereof, will not affect whether or not they are successful at completing school. As both a Social Studies and English teacher, I like to challenge my students’ world view and prod at the comfortable little bubble they reside in. Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone, is an extremely effective tool in bursting the comfortable bubble that some students live in. Beah’s book is a powerful memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, the struggle to survive the civil war and avoid capture, the internal battle over remorse when performing his “military duties”, and the recovery process he underwent to become normalized again. It is heart wrenching, and eye opening. It gives a very personal glimpse into what is going on outside of this sheltered continent called North America.

It is a fantastic bubble-burster because students read the book and see first-hand the struggles that people in the developing world must endure. The book highlights the resiliency of children to overcome great odds when faced with challenges, and shows that the grit we try to instill in them is not a lost cause, but training for the challenges they will face in life. This is not to say that our students will endure similar hardships to Ishmael, but that perhaps they will face those challenges with more optimism and a stronger work ethic, because, if a boy like Ishmael can overcome what life threw in his path, should not any human be able to take on the problems they may face with courage?

The theme that was impressed upon me the most while reading Beah’s story was the brittle nature of humanity. Early in the story, Ishmael’s innocence is taken from him because of turmoil in his country. Instead of enjoying his adolescences, he is forced to run for his life, lose contact with family members, and generally have his life turned upside down.  Once he is picked up by the government’s army at the age of 13, he is forced to commit terrible acts and his humanity increases to deteriorate. His life in the army breaks him down, and once he is rescued, it takes significant help to try and fix what his experiences ruined. A Long Way Gone highlights the tenuousness of our humanity and how extreme situations can debase it and cause us to succumb to our baser instincts. It is even more powerful because it is not some fictional interpretation of the story, but Beah’s actual account of events he had to endure.

With so much to be able to dig into, I would highly recommend this book to be used for Lit Circles. It will give students so many things to think critically about, challenge their world view, and force them to dig into a wolrd outside of their comfort zone. The prose is not overly challenging, although the content can be fairly sad and brutal, so I would say this is a book for grade 10 and up. Much like my last review, World War Z, one of the strongest themes in A Long Way Gone is humanity and the human reaction to challenge. I would pair this book with Max Brooks’ World War Z or Pat Barker’s Regeneration, as they again all deal with the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because of the brokenness of childhood and the recovery process involved. A Long Way Gone is a brokenly fantastic story of overcoming extreme hardships, and the resiliency of humanity.

World War Z

World War Z Cover

“The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” [Effin’] A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells.”

Historical fiction is often an interesting genre for literature. Basing a story in a past and playing with the history a bit, perhaps manipulating it to fit the story, an author can create a beautiful story that the reader can relate to. These books may bring accounts of real life situations into the story and can be told from the perspective of those in the heat of the battle. In my opinion, Max Brooks’ World War Z is a piece of historical fiction, albeit a fictitious history. World War Z is an oral history of the zombie apocalypse on earth, told from the perspective of survivors from around the world. It is a very intriguing book, as it details the story of the outbreak of a zombie plague that surrounds the world and how each area of the world dealt with each phase of the plague’s spreading and ultimate defeat.

Using multiple perspectives on similar events makes a fantastic story weaved together with elegance. Brooks uses several different voices that each present haunting stories that reveal government cover ups, issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and lost loved ones. But Brooks also includes the beauty in humanity, with stories of collaboration, grit in the face of adversity, and hope for the future. It is a story with many themes and many angles that provides several different ways a teacher could employ it in their classroom. And the way that Brooks weaves it all together from an oral-historical perspective, makes World War Z a unique story of survival.

The unique way in which World War Z is told makes in an extremely engaging story. The interviewer/interviewee style makes it feel like the stories coming from the people are real, instead of just some fictitious story. However, there is some strong language and some haunting scenes  in this book and I would only recommend this book for grade 12 students. The most apparent theme, humanity and the human reaction to challenge, is very compelling and harkens back to books like Lord of the Flies or 1984. It is a book with many different themes and ideas so it leaves many opportunities for students to provide written responses. I would pair this book with Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or Timothy Findley’s The Wars, as they all deal with PTSD, the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war. World War Z is one of the most creative zombie apocalypse books I have ever read and it is an extremely engaging read.

Leviathan

Leviathan

“Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos”– Alek

What if? It is one of the great questions asked about history. What if one of the plans to assassinate Hitler had been successful? What if Rome had not been sacked by the Goths? What if Darwin had not made his scientific theories about evolution? The answers to these questions will never be known, but many authors have taken this concept and put it into print. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is one of those books. Leviathan takes the era around World War One and changes the setting somewhat. The global powers are not divided based on old alliances, but based around their reliance on either steam-powered engines and war machines, which dubs those people the Clankers, or genetically fabricated beasts, which gives those nations the name the Darwinists, due to Darwin’s genetic discoveries. Westerfeld has created a fascinating alternate universe in which two differing paths of science have created world-wide allegiances. But, much like the state of affairs in Europe leading up to 1914, the European superpowers wanted to start a war and test their technological power.

However, Leviathan is not a novel about the grandly sweeping movement of a World War and the interactions of world powers, it is the story of a young prince forced from his home by his own nation, it is the story of a young girl hiding her gender from the British Air Service to escape into the airborne world, it is the intertwining of these two stories. Alek is the heir to the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary after his parents are assassinated, but his country does not want him to take control, so he must run for his life. Deryn is a girl, dealing with the loss of her father and the attempt of her mother to “girlify” her, so she lies about her gender and joins the British Air Service. Once they come together, the two bond over common backgrounds, although one is a commoner and one is royalty, as they both have lost their fathers and they both have a secret to keep, Alek hiding his royalty and Deryn hiding her gender. They also end up working together against a common enemy, as the old saying goes “an enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Courage is a strong theme throughout the book, as both protagonists must overcome their fears and obstacles to support their countrymen. Deryn is constantly trying to keep her fellow crewmen alive and fight for her country. Alek risks his own life and safety to save the downed crew of a massive British Air Service beast. Both must test their boundaries as they push to keep their men safe and prove their worth to their elders. This is a common theme for war novels, as it is often the courage of singular men and women that helps contribute to the victories of nations. Leviathan is no different in its presentation of war and its impact on those involved, but Westerfeld puts the reader in the shoes of two teens experiencing this steampunk war first hand. This allows students to be more engaged in a war novel by seeing from someone in their age group.

I would recommend this book for grades 7 and up, as the plot moves fairly quickly and the vocabulary is not overly challenging; however, I would also recommend it to students who have covered World War One and could make comparisons to that which they have learned about it previously. The story is engaging, and the theme of courage is one that is always interesting for students who want to life vicariously through the adventures of others in novels. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds,as they all deal with the need for courage in the face of danger or war erupting around them. I enjoyed Leviathan, especially the steam punk alternate universe, but it was not quite as engaging for me as Westerfeld’s Uglies was. I am hoping that the second book in the series, Behemoth, will ramp up the excitement.

Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin

“It’s just that I’m fifteen, and I have this crazy idea I might actually have a life in front of me. I don’t see how it’s going to do me much good to believe that the world is over and this is just an epilogue.” – Benny Imura

Zombies, it’s the hottest theme right now. You see it in video games, television, movies, graphic novels, and there are varying levels of success behind each of those genres with regards to the zombie theme. The world of YA Fiction is not devoid of this craze either. A slew of zombie novels have arisen in the past five years targeted at teens, once again with varying success. With experience writing zombie fiction previously, Jonathan Maberry threw his hat into the YA zombie ring, but the thing is, his book, Rot & Ruin, is a step above the rest. What sets it apart from most other zombie novels is that it isn’t about the shock factor, but about the story of a teen boy dealing with life in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested world.

Rot & Ruin follows Benny Imura, the little brother of the renowned zombie hunter, Tom Imura. But Benny doesn’t look up to Tom because he thinks Tom is a coward who ran away from danger and left their parents to die on First Night, the night of the zombie outbreak. Benny instead looks up to two other zombie hunters, Charlie Pink-Eye and the Motor City Hammer, a pair of ruthless killers who toy with their zombie prey before quieting them. It is in this misinterpretation of what strength really is that Benny develops as a person. In the early parts of the story, he thinks that because Charlie Pink-Eye and the Hammer are tough, ruthless, and can get the job done, that they are strong and deserving of his admiration. But, as Benny apprentices with his brother, he learns to respect the “zoms” just as people respect the dead in our society. Tom’s view of the zombies and the way he deals with them shows Benny that Tom is not a coward, but a truly strong individual, who shows his strength in the respect of others, even in a broken society.

Benny’s coming of age story is what drives the novel, but the concept of family and friendship is also a strong theme in the narrative. Benny’s relationship with his best friend, Chong, and his love interest, Nix, allow for a familial bond to develop, as he tries to rebuild his ties to his brother. These relationships end up driving the story forward, as Benny and Tom must face Charlie Pink-Eye and the Hammer to save Nix. As the teens spend time outside of their little town, they begin to see how their world has devolved and grow closer as a group, becoming the family that they lack. It is really an engaging book that draws the reader into their world.

Rot & Ruin is one of my favourite YA books I have read in a while. It drew me in with its post- apocalyptic theme and fast-paced, cliffhanger chapters. It had relatable characters and an engaging story. It even has some deeper understandings that the characters come to grips with, such as bullying, stereotyping, and morality. I think it is appropriate for Grades 10 and up, due to the darker aspects of the story, but I think it will draw those readers who are into the zombie craze that is infesting pop culture. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with some of my previous reviews, such as Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer Necromancer, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, or another one of my favorites, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. All are coming of age stories that have some deeper levels of thinking presented.

If you like zombies at all, this is the book for you. A great story filled with action, suspense, zombies, and a bit of romance. What else could you want in a book? Read it.

Twisted

Twisted

“Everybody told me to be a man. Nobody told me how.” – Tyler Miller

It is not very often that I find myself unable to fall asleep due to a book, but thanks to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, I lost 2 hours of sleep a few weekends ago. Having started the book the night before, I found myself unable to put the book down when I went to sleep, and ended up finishing it all in a 24 hour span. I am not sure if it was the fact that I connected so strongly with the main character, or if it was the narrative that drew me in, but I could not sleep, and I had to continue reading until the last page.

Obviously, I feel Twisted is an engaging read, and I think a large part of that is my love of cheering for the underdog. Tyler Miller is the quintessential nerd underdog; former skinny kid and social outcast turned tall, brawny, and dangerous hunk thanks to puberty, a criminal record due to an ill-conceived prank, and the subsequent court-appointed backbreaking, muscle enhancing , volunteer work. Returning to school for his senior year after nearly being expelled for his school prank, Tyler has created a name for himself, and begins to attract the attention of his dream girl, Bethany Milbury. However, throughout the story, Tyler does not rise to the top of the high school social hierarchy, but is constantly beaten down by the world around him, and his own lack of confidence.

Maybe I was drawn to the book like a gawker is drawn to a car crash. It is so horribly uncomfortable, yet I could not look away. I pulled for Tyler throughout the story, hoping that he could overcome his obstacles, but much like Anderson’s other novels, the main character somewhat accepts his “worthlessness” without much of a fight. The fact that Anderson creates such believable characters is what makes her novels so engaging, and I found Twisted to be the best of hers that I have read.

The book deals with the classic bildungsroman teen issues such as fitting in and discovering identity, as well as powerful issues of emotional and physical abuse and suicide. The story flows well and is very easy to read and the characters are so well defined, that the growth that Tyler exhibits is contrasted by the inability of many others to change in their own circumstances.

I would recommend this book for grades 10 and up, but that is due to some of the emotionally charged scenes and sensitive subjects, not the challenge of the prose. This book would be great for upper level students who are struggling readers, as it is not a challenging read, but is an extremely engaging and relatable story. In Lit Circles, I would pair it with Anderson’s Speak, which can be seen as a similar story, but from a female perspective, as well as Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which deals with suicide and fitting in, and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines or even Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer Necromancer from my last post, which both deal with discovering identity.

Twisted is a great book for lovers of the underdog, those who struggle to focus while reading, or fans of engaging fiction in general.

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead

“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.” – Andrew Wiggin

DISCLAIMER: If you have not read Ender’s Game, the first book in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Tetralogy, please DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW. It contains SPOILERS to the plot of the first book. I thought it pertinent to cover Speaker for the Dead, as the film for Ender’s Game has recently been released, and some of my students just read it and may be looking at the next book.

Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is the sequel to Ender’s Game, but takes place about 3,000 years after the end of the first book. The title comes from Ender’s new role in his society in which he is a Speaker for the Dead, a priest or cleric of a sort, who speaks about the life of a person after they have died. This role comes to be after Ender writes two books The Hive-Queen and The Hegemon, one about the Bugger Wars from the Formic’s perspective, and one about Peter Wiggin and his life. These books become somewhat of a holy set for many and heavily influence human society between the end of the first book and the start of this one. Ender, now going by Andrew, continues to be a Speaker for the Dead and travels to the colony Lusitania, the site of the first contact with a sentient alien race since the Bugger Wars, the Porquinhos, or piggies as they are nicknamed.

One thing that must be pointed out immediately about this novel is that it’s content and focus is quite different from that of the first novel in the series. Speaker for the Dead is a much more philosophical novel and contains much less “action”. Card discusses ideas of humanity and the fear humans have of the unknown, a fear they know too well from the time of the Bugger Wars. The story revolves around human interactions: people whose broken relationships lead them to be outcasts, the Catholic colony of Lusitania’s attempted rejection of Ender, and families broken by abuse. While Ender’s Game did have some philosophical moments, such as when Ender struggled with his humanity and fear of becoming like his brother, the book mostly revolves around action within Battle School and Ender’s experiences in his game.

This book is an interesting read, by all means, but I am not sure how well students would connect with it. In this story, Ender is no longer a child, but a 35 year old man. He is struggling with concepts that most teens are not, such as the need for a life-companion and children, the gnawing pain of lost family, and the continual struggle with his part in the genocide, or xenocide, of the Buggers. This last part is what motivates him to help the piggies create stable relations with the humans and their Hundred Worlds government. It really is a fascinating story, just one that needs to be approached with an understanding that it is not like its predecessor.

I would target this book at Grade 11 & 12 lit circles, where the students can tackle the deeper issues with some maturity. I would definitely not recommend it to struggling readers, as the occasional mix of Portuguese and futuristic vocabulary can cometimes cause confusion even in a seasoned reader. I would suggest pairing it with novels that deal with recovering from brokenness and deal with the search for belonging, such as Tim O’Brien;s The Things They Carried, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or Pat Barker’s Regeneration. It is a good upper level book for those that have read Ender’s Game in previous grades, allowing them to connect with a character they already know, but in a new way.

This novel is great for fans of the series, as it takes the characters in a new direction. If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I suggest doing so, as it is a fun book and Card is a fantastic writer.