Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant by Veronica Roth

divergent

I am waaayyyyy late to this party, I know. I’ve had Divergent on my bookshelf since it came out and I finally read it, and then immediately read Insurgent and Allegiant over the last 5 days. (I also have a copy of Four, but I left it at school, so I’ll start that up when we get back.)  My students will be so happy that I got caught up on this over our Thanksgiving break!  Why did it take me so long to read? I’m not sure.

I was an early reader of The Hunger Games. I think I resisted Divergent because I was being loyal to Katniss. When I started reading Divergent, my thoughts, were “Yeah, yeah, yeah, dystopia, got it” and then as Tris made her decision on Choosing Day and THEN the implications of choosing Dauntless were revealed, I was hooked.

Okay this only makes sense to people who have read the books, so let me back up. In a future Chicago, society is divided into factions based on personality temperaments. There are the Erudite, who value learning and logic, the Amity, who value peace and relationships, the Abnegation, who value selflessness and modesty, and the Dauntless, who value courage and bravery. When you turn 16, you get the option of leaving your family faction behind and reassigning yourself to something new. This is partly led by a test that is supposed to show a particular aptitude for one faction or another. Some people show an affinity for more than one faction though, and those people are the Divergent. Divergent people are considered dangerous, so that attribute must be kept hidden. Beatrice, or Tris, is Divergent. She joins Dauntless in the hopes of finding a place for herself because she doesn’t quite fit in with her own family or any of the other groups. She meets a boy named Four, and she trains really hard and she becomes all kinds of cool.

There is more to this society than meets the eye though, and over the three books we discover that all of these people are part of something even bigger, and everyone is being manipulated through generations of beliefs that are not quite accurate. There is a war on the horizon, but this has all happened before. Attempts to control it had mixed results. And it turns out the Divergent folks are the ones with just the right combo of smarts, bravery, sacrifice, and solidarity to begin a revolution. No wonder they are considered dangerous when they are perfectly suited to challenge the status quo (the way things are and have always been, so “they” say.)

Tris is an awesome character, though I question her ability to be thrust into so many new situations and handle them all so calmly and rationally when she is only 16 years old. She always managed to see through people and figure out the right thing to do, even when she had to go against Four and work behind his back. However, this did not bother me at all when I read the books because I was fully involved in her point of view. Maybe I ended up feeling this way because the last book uses alternating viewpoints between Tris and Four, which allowed me to take a step back from the action. (I did not care for this narration technique because they “sounded” so much alike. Sometimes I had to double-check to see whose chapter I was reading.)

So, let’s get to the ending. I already knew what was going to happen at the end. Shortly after Allegiant came out, I was ambushed by a bunch of hysterical sixth graders who were devastated (devastated!) by the ending. Perhaps that is another reason I put off reading the books. However, I will say that I think that what happened HAD TO happen to be true to the character. Had to. So I did not mind this at all, and would still say yes, read these books.

Interestingly as I was finishing Insurgent, I went to see The Giver at the movies, and I was struck by a lot of the similarities, starting with the choosing ceremony (or assignment ceremony in The Giver), and that made me think again of The Hunger Games and also the Matched series, where the government suppresses the people and controls every aspect of their lives. It was cool to think about how these big dystopian ideas all connect. So if you liked those books, or movies, you should definitely check out the Divergent series. It will make you think big ideas, just like Tris. (And Katniss, and Jonas, and Cassia…)

Divergent has an AR level of 4.8 and is worth 16 points; Insurgent is level 5.0 and is worth 16 points; Allegiant is level 5.7 and is worth 17 points.

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The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

scorpionTwo posts on the same day! Go me!

Here’s a book that I just finished.  Like, 15 minutes ago just finished, and I though I’d better blog it right NOW while I’m already here!

The House of the Scorpion is a dystopian future-style book, though you don’t get the full impact of how strange the world has become until late in the book.  You get to go through the plot alongside the main character, learning as he learns, which led me to gasp out loud and make I’m sure what were ridiculous faces as I read this in class.  (My students think it’s funny when I read because I cannot keep my reactions to myself.)

This is a very twisty sci-fi novel about..well, it’s about a lot of things.  It’s about a boy, Matt, who is the clone of a man called El Patron, a terrible and powerful drug dealer in a country called Opium that runs along the border of the US and Mexico.  Matt has been grown in order to be spare parts for El Patron as he ages and become sickly.  Matt is actually the 9th clone in a long line of clones, and his time is running short.  Clones are considered no more than livestock, so he is treated poorly and has few rights.  Luckily El Patron favors him, so he is allowed an education and other privileges.  There is a dark undercurrent to this book, which made it super intriguing to read.  I knew things had taken a turn when Matt found himself in an “orphanage” where one of the mottos was “work is freedom” which sent chills down my spine.  “Work is freedom’ is a saying posted at many of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII and I remembered it immediately from going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. last year.  There is a sequel to this book that I now *must* read.  I’m curious to know if Matt can overcome his own DNA or if he will give in to a history that is his by default.  Will he become what he must be destined for, or will he rise above his fate?  An interesting note from the author at the end expresses some of the moral issues that the book touches on, too. So good.

The House of the Scorpion has an AR level of 5.1, though I think it reads higher due to its science fiction characteristics, where you just have to press forward and trust that what you need to know will be explained to you in time.  Because it is complex, it is worth 15 AR points, an indication that you’re looking at a heavy plot.  Read this if you are a fan of other dystopian series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Giver.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s taken me longer than I had hoped to finish this book, but the fact is that I’m spending a ton of my time getting ready to go back to work next week. (Next week?!?) I’ve already spent about 6 hours in my classroom moving furniture around and unpacking my library.  Library first, always.  It makes me feel like I’m at home.  I’m super lucky this year because I get to teach another round of sixth grade at the same school I was at last year, and I’m really looking forward it!

Full disclosure on this book– it’s an upper-middle grade book, which is higher than what I’ve been posting about lately, but it is easy to read and is leveled as a 4.4.  Remember that just because you CAN read something, doesn’t always mean you should, so know yourself as a reader and check with a parent if you’re not sure.  It is violent and has some language in it, though most of it is the word “effing” used as an adjective. Some of the words are spelled phonetically, though it is done so you can hear the main character’s voice in your head and how his twangy accent would sound. And interestingly, hearing voices in your head is one of the main concepts of this book…

Okay, so The Knife of Never Letter Go is like a science fiction-Western story, a mash-up we don’t get too often. Settlers have come to the New World and set up a colony.  They are on a planet other than Earth, because there are two moons, but everything else is very Earth-like.  We meet Todd Hewitt, an almost 13-year-old (or is he 14?), who is days away from becoming a man, according to tradition. There are no women in his town after the war against the “Spackle”, alien invaders who released some sort of biological warfare upon the people.  The Germ killed all the women and left behind The Noise for the men, in which everyone can hear every other person’s thoughts, all the time.  Even the animals were infected with Noise and they can talk, too, which I loved, because Todd is always with his dog, Manchee.  So even when Todd is alone, he always has someone to talk with, which keeps the book moving along.

But then…things happen. Todd quickly learns that everything he thought he knew is a lie.  Because he is on the run, and because reading the book is like being in Todd’s Noise, in his head, this is a very urgent read.  It is The Book of Never Letting Go, and I had to find out what would happen next!  It was different, and I really liked it.  I will continue reading this series, since it ends with a cliffhanger.  There are three main books, plus a sequel.

Read this if you like dystopian stories, like Divergent or The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner, etc., but know that this one is not the same at all.  It’s hard to explain, and maybe I’ll be able to do that better once I’ve read all of the books.  You have to be able to be okay with reading a story and not quite knowing what is going on, which is what I find to be true about most sci-fi books.  Just sit back and go for the ride, and know that the author will tell you what you need to know at the moment you need to know it. It was very suspenseful, especially with the author’s writing style, and it kept me pushing through.  Check it out!

The Knife of Never Letting Go has an AR level of 4.4 and is worth 16 points.

Matched trilogy by Allie Condie

Matched trilogyThis 3 part series has finally wrapped itself up, after the first book came out in 2010.  I waited for what felt like a long time for the ending, and despite its strong start, I wound up disappointed in the end.

Matched takes place in a dystopian future.  The government, or Society, controls every aspect of your life from family size, to your job, to how you spend your free time, to when you die.  The title comes from the rite of passage ceremony, the Match banquet, where teens find out who they are assigned to marry.  Cassia attends her Match and is pleased to find out that she has been matched with one of her very best guy friends, Xander, someone she already knows and loves.  Most of those matched end up paired with someone they have never met and end up leaving their families to move to a new city, so she is quite lucky.  When she gets home with the information microchip that came in her banquet package, she plugs it into her computer to view.  For a split second, someone else’s picture pops up on the screen, and again it is someone else that she knows, Ky.  Ky shouldn’t be in the Match at all, but then the picture quickly switches back to Xander.  How has this happened?  The Society doesn’t make mistakes.  Chaos ensues, and everyone is split up.  I liked this book very much, even though the love triangle situation reminded me of The Hunger Games.

Book 2 is called Crossed.  Our main characters are still apart from each other, and as a result, the narrator switches from chapter to chapter between Ky and Cassia.  For me, this was distracting, especially since Ky and Cassia are reunited pretty early on in the book.  They are trying to find the people who are part of the Rising, the people who have been trying to live off the grid and away from the Society.  Xander is missing, or at least somewhere in the background.  Ky and Cassia do find a weird stash of Society stuff and a treasure trove of things smuggled out by the Rising people, but not much happens in this story.  (I know people complained about the part in HP7: The Deathly Hallows where it felt like Harry, Ron, and Hermione were camping for 6 months and sitting around in the woods trying to figure out what to do.  It was kind of that feeling, except we know and LOVE Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and at least they are on a clear quest.  I didn’t feel like I knew Cassia, Ky, and Xander enough to root for them a whole lot here.)

Book 3, Reached,  is the one I struggled with the most.  It’s hefty at just over 500 pages.  Now we have 3-way alternating chapters and everyone is separated again…until they aren’t.  This was confusing because the whole book is written in the same voice and I kept getting confused between the two boys.  Here is where the book takes an unexpected turn for me, and the plot becomes about a virus, immunizations, a plague, a mutation virus, and a cure.  This book was slow.  It took a long time, hundreds of pages, to get interesting for me.  I read this while my students did their silent reading and it led to some good discussions on what to do when you don’t really like a book. What kept me going was the fact that the book was divided into parts and I kept hoping that the next part would be the one that was suddenly better.  Even in the end, you still don’t have all of your questions answered.  My final verdict: meh.

So, I say this.  Read these books (at least the first one) if you liked The Hunger Games, The Giver, Uglies, or any other dystopian-futuristic-rebellion-type stories.  Also read these if you are an aspiring writer, not so much for the story, but because Allie Condie does have a particularly beautiful way of writing about nature and colors.  There were some really nice passages in these books, but her elaborate writing slowed down the action instead of serving to move the plot along.

Matched is AR level 4.8 and is worth 13 points.

Crossed is AR level 4.2 and is worth 12 points.

Reached is AR level 4.6 and is worth 16 points.

These AR levels seem low for the story content, especially for Reached, where the information about The Plague gets very clinical.  The romance is very sterile though, just like The Society wants it. Ha ha!

When You Reach Me *and* Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

whenyoureachmeliarandspyI happened to have two books by this author on my classroom shelves and had not read either of them yet, so I brought them home for Christmas vacation.  I have a tendency to buy way more books than I can possibly read, so a few make their way into the library before I have a chance to get at them first.  When I get back to school on Monday, I’ll be able to do a book commercial and see if I can get any “buyers” for these two selections.  I have a lot of responsibilities as a teacher, lots of things I have to juggle throughout the year, lots of things I am required to teach, lots of people to make happy, but I still know that the most important part of my job is giving books to kids and making them readers.

Personally, I just noted that I read 49 books in 2012, falling short of my goal of 60.  That’s okay.  Three of those books were super long, so I’m not worried about not making it for 2012.  I re-set the book counter and I’m already two books in for 2013!  One of those books was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  This book won the Newberry Award in 2010, and a bunch of other awards as well.  This story is about a sixth grader named Miranda.  She lives in New York with her single mom, back in the olden days of 1979 when I was a kid.  She has/had a best friend named Sal who lives downstairs, but this year something has changed and they have grown apart.  Miranda is figuring out the social system at school and deciding on her friendships and all of that sixth grade stuff.  She and her friends have the freedom to cruise around their neighborhood, but they are always sure to avoid the strange homeless guy on the corner.  They even get jobs during their school lunchtime since they are allowed to leave campus during their break, except for those days when a strange naked guy is out running in the street.  Her favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time  (a book that I struggled with for years!), but it primarily has to do with time travel.  This is an important concept in When You Reach Me,  so open your brain to the possibilities when Marcus, another kid from school, starts talking to Miranda about it in detail.

Miranda begins receiving mysterious notes that make her feel like someone is stalking her.  The hidden key to their apartment goes missing and someone has been inside, but nothing appears to be missing.  The notes are oddly specific, but their meaning is a mystery.  It is clear that they have all been written ahead of time because they give her clues to events that will prove the notes to be true.  It’s as if they are being sent from the future.  Hmmm.  When the events all come together, they come together hard and fast!  Keep an open mind, relax and know that everything will be explained, and you will really enjoy this book!

The other book I read was called Liar and Spy.  In this one, a boy named Georges has moved into a new apartment building.  His father has lost his job, they had to sell their house in the neighborhood, and as a result his mom is working crazy hours around the clock as a nurse.  One day when he and his father are in the laundry room, they see a note on the bulletin board announcing a Spy Club meeting. This leads to an encounter with another kid in the building, named Safer. Safer is homeschooled and seems to spend a lot of his time watching the camera in the lobby, making notes on the neighbors, and observing the bird nest he can see from the window. Safer is obsessed with Mr. X, a mysterious man who also lives in the building.  Mr. X wears all black, never speaks, and is constantly moving suitcases in and out of his apartment.  Georges is being bullied at school on a daily basis, so he quickly gets sucked into Safer’s world of sneaking around and spying on Mr. X as a distraction from his real life. This is a quick read at only 180 pages, but it’s not until the last 15 that you fully understand what is happening and it feels like the rug is yanked out from underneath your feet!  Someone is a liar and someone is a spy, and somewhere in the middle is the truth.  This book felt really true, like these would be people you could actually know, and the character interactions were very real, especially their dialogue. One of my favorite details are the notes that Georges and his mother leave each other, spelled out in Scrabble tiles, as their main form of communication.  (Alternate cover art for the book has the title spelled out in Scrabble letters, but mine did not. Very cool though!)

So, to sum up: When You Reach Me is a funky, light science fiction book, that is unpredictable.  Read it if you think Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter book!  Liar and Spy is a realistic fiction story, but is more than it seems on the surface.  Read it if you’ve been bullied, are a bully, or want to be a spy.  Both are books about friendship.  And hope.  I think both stories are definitely rooted in hope, which is a great way to start the new year!

When You Reach Me is level 4.5 and is worth 6 AR points.  Liar and Spy is leveled at 3.8 and is worth 5 points.

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

Michael VeyOkay, so teaching school really interrupts my free reading time! It’s okay though, because the librarian at my new school is so awesome and it’s great to have someone at work to talk to about all of these cool kid books.  My students LOVE to read this year, too, and they ask for more silent reading time, “please please please!?!” every day.  We have the top AR points for the whole school, with about 4 times as many points banked as the other sixth grade class.  These kids are serious readers!

Today’s book is one that the librarian handed to me last week.  It hasn’t even been checked into the library yet, so I feel pretty privileged to be able to get first peek at it.  It’s called Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25, by Richard Paul Evans.  It was a quick read and I really enjoyed it.  This is a fast-paced middle grade book about a boy with secret electric powers and the evil mastermind who wants to capture and exploit him.  Michael Vey is a seemingly regular high school kid who is just trying to lay low and not get beat up by the school bullies.  One day, a confrontation outs his abilities and he discovers that someone else he knows has similar powers.  Michael, his best friend Ostin, and Taylor (popular, a cheerleader, also electric) launch an investigation that reveals that there were 17 of these “electric children” and now they are being rounded up and held at the Elgen Academy, where Dr. Hatch is trying raise an electric army of kids for his own nefarious purposes.  Life is good at the Academy, IF you are willing to do whatever Dr. Hatch asks of you.  If you don’t comply, there will be punishments!  First Taylor is taken, and then Michael’s mom is kidnapped, which sets Michael on a road trip to California with some unlikely companions.  When they get to the Elgen Academy, it is much more like a prison instead of the school campus they expected.  Getting in is one thing, but getting out seems impossible.  Terrible experiments are happening inside and these electric kids are even using their powers against each other.  The children who refuse to comply are kept in a detention cell, separate from the rest.  Michael, for his refusals to participate, gets locked into a solitary and dark cell for almost a month.  (Cell 25!)  Can they find a way to work together to escape?

I thought this book raised some interesting moral dilemmas that would make for great discussions.  Dr. Hatch is a very tricky antagonist and he plays psychological games with his prisoners.  As one of the children noted, he “manipulates by guilt” starting with small requests until the line between right and wrong becomes blurred and he can hold your morals hostage by offering you everything else you ever wanted.  He calls his electric children “eagles” and compares them to regular folk  being “chickens.”  Eagles eat chickens, not because they are bad, but because it is their nature.  So, what is human nature?  Can you stay strong and continue to make the right choices, even when people you love are in danger?  At what point in this game have you gone too far, and can you come back from those mistakes?

I recommend this book to kids who liked The Hunger Games, the Uglies series, and I Am Number Four books. It was an easy readbut an exciting story.  The characters were a little predictable, but appropriate for the target audience.  This book has an AR level of 3.5 and is worth 11 points.  Although the reading level is low, the characters are in high school.  However, there is no bad language or mature content, so in my opinion, this book would be fine for sixth graders and up.  It would be a great book for a reluctant reader as there is a second book out already and more yet to come!