Review: Juvie by Steve Watkins

Juvie by Steve Watkins. Candlewick Press. 320 pp.

Juvie by Steve Watkins. Candlewick Press. 320 pp.

Sadie Windas is a responsible kid: a high school junior, talented basketball player, devoted girlfriend, and reliable daughter. Her older sister Carla, on the other hand? Not so much. A selfish single mother with substance abuse issues, Carla relies on her sister and their mother for lots of help in raising her three-year-old daughter Lulu. When Carla and Sadie are arrested by an undercover cop for their alleged roles in a drug transaction — which is truly a case of stupidity and wrong-place wrong-time factors — Carla faces a minimum of four years in prison. Not wanting to see her niece grow up without a mother, Sadie makes a risky sacrifice: she takes responsibility for a crime she didn’t commit so that her sister can go free. Now she’ll be spending the next six months in juvie.

The scenes alternate between the incidents in the juvenile detention facility and the events in Sadie’s life up to and immediately following her arrest. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to work in an alternative high school. It was a day school, but the same group of kids traveled together from class to class, so they spent the entire school day together. Even though they got to go home after school, if you put a group of adolescents together for that many hours at a time — especially adolescents with some kind of record — there are bound to be interpersonal conflicts. I’m not saying that I know what goes on in juvie, but I know what went on at my school, and this book seems pretty spot-on to me. There are “accidental” injuries, chairs being thrown, escapes attempted…and if a fight erupts, all of a sudden half the room is fighting and getting out weeks of pent-up slights and frustrations.

The plot moves at a good pace, and the transitions back to Sadie’s pre-juvie days give the reader time to breathe before delving back into the suffocating atmosphere of the detention center. At first, I found the writing a bit repetitive: Sadie says the word “juvie” so many times in the first handful of chapters that it was driving me crazy, but eventually that stopped and I could focus on the story itself instead of word choice or repetition. 

Juvie‘s premise and portrayal are realistic enough to be frightening. But there’s enough heart in the book to balance things out: Sadie spends lots of time on personal reflection, and her faith that her sister will finally get her act together is inspiring. She learns an important lesson, one that her Granny taught her years ago but is becoming much more applicable now:

You wake up every morning…no matter what happened the day before, and you tell yourself you’re going to do good.

All in all: Worth reading, even if you don’t usually read YA. It’s a good story, period.

Maybe I’m a Reality TV Junkie After All: The Holdout by Laurel Osterkamp

The Holdout by Laurel Osterkamp. Preventive Measures. 238 pp.

The Holdout by Laurel Osterkamp. Preventive Measures. 238 pp.

If you asked me last week what I thought of reality TV, I would have had nothing but negative things to say: it’s a waste of time, it’s heavily manipulated by producers, we only watch it to make us feel better about our own lives, etc. And I still hold those opinions, but after reading The Holdout, I realized something else: regardless of all its negative aspects, reality TV is compelling. I still have no real desire to watch it regularly (except for So You Think You Can Dance), but I have to admit that it can easily suck you in — because where else do you get such an intimate, close-up view of someone else’s life?

Oh, that’s right: in a book! That’s why The Holdout is the best of both worlds: it’s a book about a reality TV star. It’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense of the phrase, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Robin, a thirty-year-old theater school graduate, has bounced from one job to the next for years, never finding something at which she truly excels. When she is accepted to be a contestant on The Holdout (a prime time reality show where contestants are given challenges and vote one another off a remote island…sound familiar?), she jumps at the chance, determined to prove to her tough-love-style family that she is stronger than she looks. Once on the island, however, Robin falls for fellow contestant Grant, not realizing that he is just manipulating her emotions in order to win the game (and the million dollar prize). Robin returns home, heartbroken, and watches Grant’s betrayal again as the episodes air on television each week. All she has to keep her mind off things is jury duty, and she is determined not to let the wrong person win this time.

The Holdout feels like a chick flick at times, but like one of the good ones. You know, the ones you pull out to re-watch on a rainy day. I loved following Robin’s thoughts. Even in the middle of other things, she thinks about stuff like whether or not she could pull off a certain outfit or how long the woman she’s talking to takes to do her hair. I could really relate to her constantly-running internal commentary.

But as superficial as the initial premise may be (misunderstood middle-class girl who wants to prove a point to her family), there is an underlying depth. This book examines topics like social justice, manipulation, honesty, legacy, and forgiveness. Osterkamp doesn’t spoon-feed you the conclusions to the questions she asks, either; she gives you the situations and lets you think about them for yourself. And she manages to make jury duty sound almost interesting!

All in all: Made me laugh, brought tears to my eyes, and kept me thoroughly entertained.

Picture Book Roundup #3

The Thankful Book by Todd Park. Little, Brown Books. 32 pp.

The Thankful Book by Todd Park. Little, Brown Books. 32 pp.

The Thankful Book is just what it sounds like: a collection of things to be thankful for. Some are simple and straightforward, but others are unexpectedly humorous. Granted, the illustrations look like they were done in MS Paint, but they’re detailed and colorful enough to make up for it. (Usually I hate it when pictures look like I could have drawn them, but for some reason, these work.) It’s especially appropriate for the Thanksgiving season, but I’d read it year-round. It’s simple enough to read to my one-year-old but will probably work up to preschool age. A couple of my favorite lines to demonstrate the variety of things to be thankful for:

I am thankful for walks because they are special times for just you and me.


I am thankful for underwear because I like to wear it on my head.

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. 56 pp.

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. 56 pp.

Exclamation Mark is a book about…well…an exclamation mark. He is surrounded by periods and tries his hardest to fit in, but that line on top of his head gives him away every time. He is embarrassed by being different until he meets a question mark who forces him to stand up for himself. Once everyone sees what he can do, he is proud of his special abilities. This is a very versatile book: I’d use it in elementary school to introduce punctuation marks, I’d use it for just about any age to teach a lesson about acceptance in simple terms, and I’ve already read it to my one-year-old. It’s short enough for him to endure, and he was enthralled by all the smiling faces. This was a library book, but I’d consider adding it to my collection.

I Hate Picture Books by Timothy Young. Schiffer Publishing. 32 pp.

I Hate Picture Books by Timothy Young. Schiffer Publishing. 32 pp.

The final book for today’s roundup is I Hate Picture Books. It’s about Max, a boy who decides that picture books are unrealistic and can only get him into trouble — like that time his mom read him Harold and the Purple Crayon. It was okay when Harold did it, but when Max drew on the walls, he got sent to bed without his dinner! What good can come of imagination if it brings such terrible punishments? So Max boxes up his picture books and decides to throw them in the trash. Then a funny thing happens: as Max reiterates his reasons for hating picture books, he experiences an overwhelming urge to read them all again. Could he really love his picture books after all? This is a funny, silly homage to picture books, with nods to many children’s classics. For someone like me, a book about books is really as good as it gets.

I love when I can end things on a good note!

Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan


Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. Alfred A. Knopf. 208 pp.

I don’t think I’ve written about this on here before, but I have a policy when it comes to David Levithan: if he wrote it, read it. This has worked heavily in my favor over the past six or seven years (the length of time since I first picked up Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist); I’ve never been disappointed by David. (In case you didn’t know, he’s also the editor of such YA wonders as the Hunger Games series and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Just another reason to love him.)

Because of The Levithan Policy, I knew that I was going to read Two Boys Kissing. The question was, when? When my library got a copy, that’s when! I actually hopped with joy at finding this one on the library shelf, partially because I would finally get to read it, but also because my library tends to be a bit conservative in their selections and it was good to see them branching out a bit.

This book is about more than the aforementioned two boys. It’s about eight boys, all of them gay, and all of them at different stages of life and love. The title boys are kissing in an attempt to break the record for the world’s longest kiss. The others are figuring out things like bullies, new relationships, gender, community, identity, and acceptance. The book is narrated by a chorus of men who have died of AIDS who watch the next generation live in a world that has progressed quite a bit but still has a long way to go.

Here’s the sign of a good book: it takes a very specific experience, tells a story about it, and shows you how that experience is relevant to your life. Haven’t we all struggled in the early days of a relationship, wondering how much of our true selves to reveal and when? Haven’t we all been the victims of snap judgments, bullies, or family members who look at us like we have two heads because they don’t understand where we’re coming from? Demographically, I have nothing in common with the boys in this story — age, gender, sexual orientation — but in the deeper, more human ways, we are a lot alike.

And yet these boys struggle with things that I will never have to struggle with. My family was not upset by my sexual orientation, nor was I ever made to feel like there was something wrong with me because of whom I loved. The world has come a long way, but there’s still so much hate for people who love differently than the majority does. Levithan does a masterful job of showing this in simple, beautiful, and heartbreaking examples.

All in all: Worth reading. Sad, beautiful, and poetic.

Review of Poets Translate Poets & Guest Post: On Translation by Jordi Alonso

Poets Translate Poets ed. by Paula Deitz. Syracuse University Press. 448 pp.

Poets Translate Poets ed. by Paula Deitz. Syracuse University Press. 448 pp.

Poets Translate Poets is an collection of work previously published by The Hudson Review. It features poems by eighty-three poets, translated by sixty writers into modern English from twenty-four original languages. The poems run the gamut in terms of subject and form, and they’re a great sampling of different translators’ styles that provide a wide-ranging look at just what can be done with the English language.

Reading this collection provides a glimpse into themes from different eras and cultures. It’s also a great springboard if you’re looking for a new poet to read; between the original poets and the translators, you’re bound to find someone you enjoy. It wasn’t an overall favorite of mine, though: I found a couple of poems and poets worth looking into further, but overall, I’m not sure if I’d recommend this anthology. It may be worth reading once, but I wouldn’t purchase it as a gift for a poetry-enjoying friend. (That honor remains reserved for Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language.)

The introduction, though, presents some excellent food for thought. When a poet translates someone else’s work, how closely must he adhere to the original? Furthermore, once a poem has been translated, to whom does it belong? Is the English-language translation to be considered a poem by the original author, a work by the translator, or some combination of the two? Mark Jarman’s inquisitive and thought-provoking introduction raises these questions, and I enjoyed them so much that I needed to find someone to discuss them with. My translation skills are virtually nonexistent, and I wanted to talk to someone who’d had hands-on experience with the process.

Enter Jordi Alonso. Here’s a bit about Jordi:

Jordi Alonso is an English and Creative-Writing major at Kenyon College. He works at The Kenyon Review managing their presence on social media and reading the slush pile. His poems have appeared in Pegasus, The Volta, and other journals. His first manuscript, a re-imagining of the work of Sappho, is under consideration at a small publishing house in Ohio. When he’s not writing or reading, he cooks, reads, bakes, teaches himself obscure European languages and dreams of living in Mytilini, Greece, or Paris.

Follow him on Twitter @jordialonso91 

And now I pass the figurative microphone over to him:
(Thanks, Jordi, for taking the time to put together some excellent ideas about the relationship between translation and etymology.)

Poets have been translating and adapting other poets’ work for as long as poetry has existed. The act of translation demands close reading on the part of the poet so that his or her audience might hear another language’s sounds and ideas through their own tongue. Close reading, though, does not imply absolute fidelity to the source text, and, as Catullus and Robert Lowell have shown through Carmen LI and the book-length project Imitations, respectively, “unfaithful” poets have much to offer.

Recently, after having completed my own translation of Pablo Neruda’s seminal 1959 collection Cien sonetos de amor (One hundred sonnets of love) and making much slower headway on my other two proposed translation projects Ovid’s Heroides in blank verse, and Pierre Louÿs‘ Chansons de Bilitis in a sort of regularized free verse,  I began to wonder how the languages that a poet or translator has mastered affect his personal philosophy of translation. These views run the gamut from the oft-quoted maxim that poetry cannot be translated by virtue of its being poetry, to Ezra Pound’s dictum that a translator should “make it new.” That is to say, a well-translated poem is as much an artful object as its original. The word poetry ultimately comes to English from the Greek ποιέω meaning “I make”, “I create”, and “I make my own” among other things.

These linguistic musings led me to start thinking in Spanish. I was translating Neruda, after all. The Spanish and French verbs  have a common ancestor in the Latin verb for to translate meaning, quite literally, “to lead across:” trans + duco. English, on the other hand, takes a different etymological route to express the same idea: I translate. This word’s ancestry shares, at least in part, some heritage with Latin and its daughter languages: the trans is there, but here’s where it gets interesting. The main part of the verb to translate in English is the second syllable of the verb: -late. Where does that come from? In the mid 1500s, according to my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, we English speakers did not yet translate; we traduced, like they do in Spanish and French. The irregular Latin verb fero has many meanings, but its principal meaning is to carry. The past participle of fero is latum, which I will loosely translate as having been carried.

Is there a fundamental difference between the attitudes towards translation given the translator’s first language, or the language from which he or she is translating? In Latin, Spanish and French, one leads across, whereas in English one’s translation has been carried across tongues.  What ideas and motives would Catullus have had when leading Sappho across the cold chasm of language and death onto the warm life and sand of the Lavinian shore? Would Chaucer have shared Catullus’ mindset when adapting Boccacio for his Boece and Knight’s Tale? John Dryden, when working on his Aeneid, said that he was writing his Vergil “in words such as he would probably have written if he were living and an Englishman”. My hypothesis is that English translators and poets generally feel more free to adapt and truncate source material to, as Pound said, “make it their own” because of the passive history of our word for changing the language in which a literary object was originally made.

Among Edward FitzGerald’s first publications was Six Dramas of Calderon, which in 1853 began paving the way for his masterpiece, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald’s idiosyncratic approach to translation was very much like Pound’s would be some years later. He was inspired by a text and sought fit words to put his own stamp on it and make it into an English beauty. FitzGerald epitomizes the etymologically English way of translating, which he called “transmogrification”. It is what Lowell did with his Imitations, and personally, what I’m doing with lines from Sappho, that is, creating a new text that has the potential to stand on its own, when picked up by a reader, and yet having a link, whether weak or strong, to the previous text with which it dialogues.

Are we, as poets and translators into and out of English, given a freer rein over the process of translation ipso facto that the word itself does not hold us with as much agency as it does our Roman, Spanish, and French compatriots? Do you have other theories on translation?

Let me know in the comments.

Creepiest Alice Story Yet…And I Loved It! Splintered by A.G. Howard

Splintered by A.G. Howard. Amulet Books. 371 pp.

Splintered by A.G. Howard. Amulet Books. 371 pp.

Splintered has been out since January, but I didn’t hear about it until last week. (I know, I know. As a Wonderland-lover, I’m ashamed of myself.) Somebody tweeted about it and I saw the gorgeous cover and had to know more. Then I learned that it was an Alice spinoff and decided that I had to buy it. This is rare, because my decision to become a stay at home mom meant that my book budget had to be severely decreased. But this looked good, and I still had a little bit of money on a Barnes and Noble gift card, so soon enough, Splintered was on its way.

It’s about a girl named Alyssa, a descendant of Alice Liddell, and her family’s struggle with madness. Desperate not to end up like her institutionalized mother, Alyssa travels down the rabbit hole to reverse the curse that’s been laid on her family ever since Alice first entered (and allegedly screwed up) Wonderland.

This isn’t Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, though. It’s darker, more devious, and much more dangerous. Alyssa is inadvertently followed by Jeb, her best-friend-slash-crush, who loyally believes the unbelievable and agrees to aid her on her quest. There’s a love triangle between the two of them and Morpheus, Alyssa’s guide through Wonderland. (Please allow me just a brief fangirly moment: Morpheus’s smoldering wickedness was far more appealing than I expected to find it. What is it about bad boys??) Anyway. The characters from Wonderland are all here: the Walrus and the Carpenter, the mad tea party attendees, kings and queens, etc. It was a delight to see them so gothically reimagined.

The writing is clean and descriptive, the plot is so fast-moving that I couldn’t believe the author could fit so many events into so few pages, and it was simply a pleasure to read. It gets creepy, too: I’m rarely frightened by the books I read, but at one point the hairs on my arm were literally standing on end. (Please note that I’m not the type of girl to use “literally” figuratively. I actually did had goosebumps.)

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was remedied in the end: Alyssa just seemed so passive. The only way she was getting by was by being rescued, time and time again, by one of the guys. And as much as it’s good for friends to save one another, she was always the one getting saved and never the one doing the saving. But it was all for a character development purpose, and I enjoyed watching her grow stronger and more sure of herself as the book progressed.

I read this in less than a day. I tried to slow myself down because I knew the next book in the series hadn’t been released yet, but it was just too good. Because he knows me so well, my husband asked if it was good enough for me to purchase the next book in the series. I replied with a wholehearted, “Absolutely.” Splintered is a great start to the series, and the book is just gorgeous. I mean, look at that cover art. And it’s printed in purple ink. It’s like a dream come true. A really dark, creepy, twisted dream come true, but still.

All in all: Excellent. This is the best Alice spinoff I’ve read so far. (Keep in mind, though, that this is YA fantasy. If you don’t like fantasy, or love triangles, this probably isn’t for you. But it was sure for me!)

Picture Book Roundup #2

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel. 36 pp.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel. 36 pp.

I’ve had my eye on The Day the Crayons Quit for a while now. You know those books that keep popping up everywhere you look, and each time you see them they still manage to look interesting? Well, I figured it was about time to pick this one up. And my local library just happened to have a copy. (Hooray!) Here’s the premise: Duncan’s crayons have gone on strike. They have some issues with the way he’s been using them (or, in pink’s case, not using them) and are withholding their services until he finds a way to meet all of their demands. What are their complaints? Well, red is feeling a little overworked, yellow and orange both insist on being the only color for the sun, and black finds it unfair that he does all of the outlining but never gets to be a featured color. How will Duncan resolve all of this (and so much more)?

This book is adorable: fun, crayony illustrations and laugh-out-loud text. I read it aloud to my husband, and we both got a kick out of it. Plus, Duncan’s solution is creative and just-right. This book is too old for my 16-month-old and seems more fit for a child in preschool or kindergarten. It’s definitely worth reading, and probably even buying. I think it would make a great gift.

The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger. Greenwillow Books. 40 pp.

The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger. Greenwillow Books. 40 pp.

Our library’s children’s room has a section for books featuring specific holidays or times of year. I found The Little Yellow Leaf in the autumn section and grabbed it because it had the least amount of text (meaning that my son could probably sit through it). We read it a couple of nights ago before bed, and he seemed interested but not enrapt. I, on the other hand, quite liked it. It’s the story of a single leaf that watches its fellow leaves falling but just isn’t ready to take the plunge yet. The language is simple and poetic, the collage-style artwork is beautiful and frame-worthy, and it’s a cute little story, too. This is one I’d like to add to our collection of seasonal/holiday books.

Monkey and the Engineer by Jesse Fuller, illustrated by David Opie. Redpsych Productions. 26 pp.

Monkey and the Engineer by Jesse Fuller, illustrated by David Opie. Redpsych Productions. 26 pp.

I grabbed this one because we call my son “Monkey” and he has an aunt who’s an engineer. The illustrations are great: colorful, fun, and full of motion. The text itself was tough for me, though. I didn’t know this until we finished reading it, but it’s been “minimally adapted” from a late-nineteenth-century folk song. When I was reading aloud, the meter and rhyme scheme felt unsettling and forced, probably because I don’t know the song and don’t know how it’s supposed to sound. This one was not a favorite for me, my husband, or my son.

And that’s it for today, but not for good. We’re big on picture books right now.

Review: Clean Slate Complex by Megan Thomason


clean slate complex by Megan Thomason. 71 pp.

Here’s the thing about a novella: just as you figure out who’s who and where things are headed, the action stops. Cut off, just like that, right as things were starting to get interesting. Or maybe it’s just the ones I’ve been reading lately. Am I just being impatient because I don’t want to wait to find out what happens next? Perhaps…

Anyway. Clean slate complex is a companion piece to the daynight series (which I haven’t read yet). It’s supposed to take place between the events of daynight and its sequel, arbitrate. It’s about a girl named Alexa Knight whose homeless family is taken in by the Second Chance Institute. At a glance, the SCI is a poverty-stricken family’s dream come true: food and shelter, clean clothes, showers, jobs, health care, education, and any electronic devices you may need to get your homework done. The conditions? Well, you’ll see. Alexa starts to ask questions but is afraid of pushing too far because the SCI is footing the bill for her sick mother’s hospital stay. Without giving too much away, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Second Chance Institute is much more terrifying than it initially seems.

This is worth reading if you don’t mind being led right to the brink of the action and then denied access to the rest of the show, so to speak. The pacing is excellent and the storyline is unbelievable in all the right ways. This is a dystopian world that I’d like to see more of; it’s a good combination of the recognizable and the how-the-hell-did-society-get-here. That’s the scariest type of dystopia, isn’t it? One where you could see yourself in, say, twenty years? And clean slate complex portrays that wonderfully. I didn’t feel terribly attached to the characters, but that might be because I only had seventy-one pages to get to know them.

All in all: If you’re more patient than I am and you’re fond of YA dystopia, you’ll probably like this. I enjoyed reading it but did not enjoy the fact that it ended so soon.

Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Simon & Schuster. 304 pp.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Simon & Schuster. 304 pp.

The cover of The Rosie Project proclaims it to be an “international bestseller,” and this comes as no surprise; it absolutely deserves to be. This book’s got a lot going for it: a colorful cast, a scientific basis without getting too cerebral, a clueless protagonist you can’t help but root for, and a healthy dose of humor.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics who knows that he’s wired differently than other people but doesn’t know how or why. His life is one big routine, complete with a whiteboard to plan his days and make the most of every minute. He prepares the same menu every week, memorizing recipes and accessing muscle memory to cook; this way, he has enough free brain space to problem solve work-related things while cooking. Why bother to use the brain power needed to try something new when his menu (and the rest of his life, for that matter) has been planned for optimal time and health benefits?

However, as must happen for a book to be interesting, Don’s life hits a speed bump: he decides that it would be beneficial for him to find a wife. (Married people are happier, live longer, etc., so Don deduces that he needs to find a spouse…you know, for purely scientific reasons.) Thus begins The Wife Project, a pages-long survey that Don designs to find the ideal mate: Do you smoke? Do you drink? What is your BMI? What do you do for fun? and so on. (He already knows which responses are acceptable and which are not, and he is having a hard time finding a woman that measures up to his sky-high standards.)

Then Don meets Rosie. A fiery feminist who drinks, smokes, and tends bar (late nights? NOT healthy!), Rosie can never be Don’s ideal partner. So why does he find himself wanting to spend so much time with her? His analytical mind cannot figure out the answer. And here the fun, comedy-of-errors shenanigans begin.

This book is hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time. Picturing Don walking up to a woman at a party and handing her a questionnaire cracked me up. But watching him miss out on social nuances, seeing him hurt without understanding why, really stabbed at me. Loneliness is always tough, but especially when you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing wrong. Even though (Do I really need to say “SPOILER ALERT” for this? I doubt it, but just in case…) Don’s Aspergers takes his deviance to the nth degree, anyone who’s ever failed in a social interaction will see himself in Don’s struggles.

All in all: Funny. Touching. A quick read that’s worth picking up.