My Literary Achilles’ Heel

During our lunch break at the ALAN conference this past November, my friends and I were discussing which breakout session to attend.  There was quite a bit of debate, because much of our decision was based on which authors we wanted to listen to.  I was originally planning on attending the session about Chicago as a setting in YA, but I didn’t for two reasons.  One reason was that our lunch took FOREVER (that poor restaurant was packed and understaffed), but the other reason was because of something Donalyn Miller said.  She of course wanted to listen to Chris Crutcher and Matt de la Peña (and who wouldn’t?!), but her primary reason for attending was because sports fiction is her Achilles’ heel.  This  really made me think because I know which genres are my least favorite, but I never thought about putting a name to it (Thank you, Donalyn!).

I’m bringing this post up because it’s been on my mind, but now even more so after winning my Teacher of the Year award.  I received a $500 check to use in my classroom, and I’m thinking about spending it on books–real predictable, right? 😉  On Thursday I told my students about it and asked them for their input on how I should spend the money.  We all agreed that a spinning book rack would be great because we could display books according to genre.  That’s easy enough, and something I’ve wanted to purchase for a while, but then I started thinking about my literary Achilles’ heel again.  I love contemporary fiction and plenty of the paranormal fiction that’s been released, although I’ll admit I’m getting worn out trying to keep up with so many series, but that’s another post altogether.  I know I could be better about reading more sports fiction, but I think I’m doing alright, especially now that one of my YA Lit students keeps reading them before me and recommending them.  Plus I love Chris Crutcher’s novels and couldn’t get enough of Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast, just as a couple examples.  I’ve been beefing up my knowledge of graphic novels, and in the process I’ve found that I really enjoy them.  I love novels in verse, so that part of my library is ever expanding, even though I know that’s not a genre of YA.  My greatest Achilles’ heel is high fantasy and science fiction.

I grew up loving fantasy.  I remember reading every unicorn book I could find when I was in elementary and middle school.  The Bunnicula books, even though those aren’t exactly fantasy, were some of my favorites.  I tried reading The Hobbit in 6th grade, and even though I didn’t finish it, I remember really enjoying it.  I could picture the setting and the characters easily.  In high school my dad handed me a copy of The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart.  I couldn’t get enough of that book!  I was over the moon in 10th grade when we started our King Arthur unit.  I wrote my essay on the Lady of the Lake and actually enjoyed doing the research (I didn’t enjoy the research involved for my Oliver Wendell Holmes essay in 11th grade–I had no choice in my author assignment).  So why do I struggle now to enjoy high fantasy novels?  I read Graceling by Kristin Cashore and adored it.  I tried reading the companion, Fire, but even though I’ve tried reading it twice now, I can’t stick with it.  I am looking forward to the release of Bitterblue.  I tried the first in The Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima, but that was really a struggle.  I have no desire to finish the series, but I do have all the books in my class library.  I’ve heard great things about the Seven Realms series, so I’m thinking about trying that.  My students requested that I buy the rest of the Eragon series, which I did yesterday, but even those I don’t really care for.  I might not like Eragon because I saw the movie first, but I still don’t know if I want to read them.

 Science fiction has never been a genre that I enjoy reading.  I read Insignia by S.J. Kincaid (releases in July 2012–review coming closer to the release date) and loved it.  It’s about gaming and virtual reality, so I’d qualify it as science fiction.  I read Tempest by Julie Cross, and even though there are some plot points that I didn’t like, I enjoyed reading the novel overall.  The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness could be seen as dystopian, but I also look at it as science fiction because it takes place on a different planet, much like Beth Revis’s Across the Universe and A Million Suns.  I’m not sure what I’m missing in this genre.  I’ve obviously enjoyed a few novels that fit within in, so why don’t I find myself reading more novels in this genre?

I’m writing about all of this because I feel like I’m letting my students down, in particular the students who do enjoy reading these genres.  I have a few titles that I can discuss with them and recommend, but I don’t have enough to feel like I’m doing a good enough job.  Does anyone else feel like this?  What’s your literary Achilles’ heel?  And if you love these genres, please leave me some recommendations!  I have that money to spend, so I want to buy some worthy YA titles in each genre to provide for my students.  And since I don’t have that much going on this weekend (FINALLY!), I think I’m going to break out of my comfort zone and try reading one or two.  So please, if you have any recommendations, or if you feel the same way I do about these genres or others, leave me a comment 🙂

Review: Tempest by Julie Cross

Julie Cross Tempest

352 pp.  St. Martin’s Griffin

Release Date: January 17, 2012

Interest: 2012 Debut Author

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads): The year is 2009.  Nineteen-year-old Jackson Meyer is a normal guy… he’s in college, has a girlfriend… and he can travel back through time. But it’s not like the movies – nothing changes in the present after his jumps, there’s no space-time continuum issues or broken flux capacitors – it’s just harmless fun.

That is… until the day strangers burst in on Jackson and his girlfriend, Holly, and during a struggle with Jackson, Holly is fatally shot. In his panic, Jackson jumps back two years to 2007, but this is not like his previous time jumps. Now he’s stuck in 2007 and can’t get back to the future.

Desperate to somehow return to 2009 to save Holly but unable to return to his rightful year, Jackson settles into 2007 and learns what he can about his abilities.

But it’s not long before the people who shot Holly in 2009 come looking for Jackson in the past, and these “Enemies of Time” will stop at nothing to recruit this powerful young time-traveler.  Recruit… or kill him.

Piecing together the clues about his father, the Enemies of Time, and himself, Jackson must decide how far he’s willing to go to save Holly… and possibly the entire world.

The theories behind time travel are often discussed and debated; they’re also the basis for novels and movies.  I was excited to receive a copy of Tempest, especially when I realized that it’s told from a guy’s point of view.  My attention was grabbed from the very beginning and found it to be an enjoyable book.  Even though I liked Julie Cross’s debut novel, I think I’ll be able to express my thoughts best if I break this review down into what worked and what didn’t work for me.

WHAT WORKED:

  • I love that the time travel and action started right at the beginning of the book.  Some novels need to take their time with introducing action and setting, but Tempest was an instant hit with it’s beginning.  Reluctant readers will be hooked right away, which is often what they need to stick with a book.
  • Jackson’s character–he’s well-developed and has a true-to-life guy’s voice.  Some female authors are better at writing from a guy’s point of view, and Julie Cross is one of them.  Jackson thinks and says things that I can easily imagine a teenage guy thinking and saying.
  • Jackson’s age–It’s not that common for Y.A. novels to have protagonists in college.  Granted, not that much time is spent in Jackson’s current time period with him experiencing college, but the reader knows and understands him as a nineteen-year-old guy.  I’d like to see more Y.A. novels breaking away from the 12-18 age group, especially as Y.A. becomes more popular across age groups.
  • Jackson’s character growth–This goes along with Jackson’s voice being believable.  Thinking back to college, Jackson’s actions and feelings about Holly early on in the novel don’t surprise me.  He’s really into learning more about time travel and figuring this out with his friend Adam.  Jackson’s problem is that he really cares about Holly, but his actions say differently.  He often breaks plans with her and really doesn’t seem that invested in the relationship.  Part of Jackson’s growth as a character is how he begins to understand the problems with how he treated Holly.  Part of this focus will be what didn’t work for me, but as a whole I appreciated this area of Jackson’s growth.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK:

  • I know this has nothing to do with the author, but I need to mention it. I’m not a fan of the cover.  Julie Cross has written a cool novel about time travel using an authentic male voice.  So why is the title in a pink font?!  And although I understand that Jackson wants to save Holly, I really don’t think that the girl on the cover should be center.  This book could/should be marketed as an excellent book with guy appeal.  I’m sure many of my boys will pick this up once I tell them about it, but I’m sure many of them wouldn’t expect it to be a “guy book” based on the cover.  We need to be realistic, many teens pick up books based on the covers.  Even I do it.  It’s a cool cover, but even being more on the gender-neutral side of things, it still has more girl appeal than guy appeal.
  • I wanted more time travel and mystery.  After Jackson jumps to a new time period when Holly is shot, he soon discovers that his dad might know more and be more than he’s letting on.  Jackson starts wondering if his dad works for the CIA.  The scenes when Jackson is trying to uncover some answers were taut with mystery and suspense and kept me turning the pages.  And then they’d stop.  So much of Jackson’s focus is his love for Holly, yet I didn’t believe his love for her was real at the beginning of the book.  Slowly this love Jackson has for her feels more authentic, but too much time was devoted to scenes between the two of them.  He starts to get to know Holly at different time periods which didn’t seem that important to the plot development.  The history and science behind Jackson’s life is much more interesting and should be a stronger focus in Tempest.
  • The ending–The ending of Tempest is full of action which is great, but after pages and pages of Jackson getting to know younger Holly, the ending felt rushed.  There’s a cliffhanger leading us into the second book which I plan on reading, but some of the new elements introduced at the end could have been fleshed out a little more.  I already know that I’ll need to read the ending of Tempest again before reading the second book because so much was introduced in the last couple chapters.
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