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Reviews Written by
James R. Gilligan "Overeducated culture vulture" RSS Feed (San Francisco, CA)

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Does My Head Look Big In This?
Does My Head Look Big In This?
by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.45
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3.0 out of 5 stars A oblique look at religion and adolescence, July 23, 2016
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Contemporary Young Adult fiction has developed a greater sense of sophistication and maturity in its approach to a wide range of issues that concern adolescents in meaningful ways—race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, violence, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse (among other themes) are examined sensitively and plausibly in any number of well written works of Young Adult literature. The topic of religion, however, consistently challenges writers of YA fiction. I’ve yet to come across a novel that features religion and faith as integral narrative elements and issues that profoundly affect characters in ways that compel them to develop and think independently. *Does My Head Look Big in This?* comes pretty close but falls somewhat short.

The novel focuses on Amal, a high school junior living in Australia. At the start of the final term of the school year, Amal decides to begin wearing the hijab full-time as an expression of her Islamic faith. The novel follows her through some quite typical high school experiences—she and her friends develop crushes on boys, contend with bullying “mean girls,” deal with body image issues, worry about upcoming exams, and cope with overbearing/controlling/unsympathetic/embarrassing parents. Amal has a fairly diverse group of friends—some are Islamic, some are Jewish, some are Palestinian-Australians (like Amal), others hail from other parts of the world, including Mrs. Vaselli, Amal’s elderly Greek-Australian neighbor who reluctantly befriends Amal. Throughout all of these encounters and the rest of the minor conflicts that arise throughout the course of the plot, Amal’s decision to wear the hijab—which seems to be the driving force behind the novel’s primary conflict—increasingly fades into the background. Until the latter portion of the novel, when Amal’s friend Leila runs away from home because of her mother’s strict opposition to her desire for education and independence.

Ultimately, Amal’s assertion of her faith creates few problems for her. It does, however, provide her with an enlightened perspective on the actions of others. It seems as though once Amal has resolved her feelings about her own faith and becomes comfortable with her decision (she even rejects a mere kiss from Adam, her crush, and explains that any form of intimacy is forbidden before marriage)—only then can she develop insight and understand the beliefs and action of others, particularly Mrs. Vaselli and Leila.

Although the novel is rather lighthearted and avoids serious drama, it sends a powerful albeit tangential message about faith in oneself and the value of empathy.

The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.03
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5.0 out of 5 stars A thousand times over, July 16, 2016
This review is from: The Kite Runner (Paperback)
My immediate reaction while reading this transcendent novel was frustration—I was peeved at myself for having waited so long to enjoy Hosseini’s masterful storytelling and sublime sense of humanity, love, and redemption. Make no mistake—The Kite Runner is an exceptional work with all of the hallmarks of great literature.

The story of Amir, the novel’s admittedly imperfect narrator, begins in Kabul in the 1960s and early 1970s, where he grows up with his privileged father (his mother dies giving birth to him) and their servants, Ali and Hassan, who is just two years younger than Amir. Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, members of a marginalized ethnic group in Afghanistan. Despite Amir’s strong friendship with Hassan, the difference in social class and economic privilege damages their bond—both physically and emotionally—and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, along with the rise of the Taliban, irrevocably transforms their relationship.

Years later, Amir—now married to an Afghan woman and living in California—is summoned back to Afghanistan for a chance to redeem himself. The ensuing narrative, despite some improbable but not entirely implausible plot developments, constitutes some of the most harrowing and emotionally powerful scenes of atonement and reconciliation imaginable.

Hosseini’s ability to tell his story and develop complex characters who exhibit all too human flaws while striving for compassion and a sense of peace left me in awe. His talent as a writer is obvious, but even stronger is his understanding of emotion and its impact on behavior. This novel moved me to tears numerous times.

Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” The Kite Runner exemplifies that idea in ways that few novels ever have. I highly recommend this novel to anyone with a pulse. Read it now—it will make you a better person.

Amazin' Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens
Amazin' Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens
by Greg W. Prince
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.02
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The next best thing to reliving the 2015 season, July 8, 2016
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Unless science and technology create some sort of nostalgia-driven virtual reality time machine, it will be technically impossible to actually relive the—yes—amazing 2015 New York Mets baseball season. But who needs science and technology when we have Greg Prince and his knowledgeable, insightful, and witty prose to guide us through that magical season?

As Prince explains in the first chapter of this book, he’s one of us—a fan. His love and devotion for the Mets permeate each page of this volume, and his adept writing and gently humorous tone made me feel as though I were spending time with a friend who loves the guys in blue and orange just as much as I do.

Structured like the season Prince so fondly recounts for us, *Amazin’ Again* powerfully captures the full range of emotions that 2015 evoked in the Mets faithful—the hope, the despair, the joy, the vindication, the disappointment, the appreciation—and most of all the privilege—of being a Mets fan.

Prince might never have taken the field for our boys in Flushing, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s their 26th man. Let’s go, Mets—and keep writing, Greg.

The Great American Whatever
The Great American Whatever
by Tim Federle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.58
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tender, funny, sad, adorable--you'll feel all the feels, July 1, 2016
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One of the latest YA novels to tell the tempestuous and angsty but ultimately affirming tale of adolescent coming out, Tim Federle’s *The Great American Whatever* problematizes the romantic notion of 21st-century queer affirmation by complicating the protagonist’s sexual identity development with grief over the death of his older sister and managing his own control issues.

Quinn Roberts—sometimes called “Win” (a clear signifier of his eventual triumph) by his late sister and his new paramour—aspires to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter. After his childhood crush and former babysitter shared with him the formula for successfully crafting an epic heroic adventure (which nearly replicates Joseph Campbell’s monomyth paradigm), Quinn collaborated with his sister Annabeth on a number of quirky independent films. He also casts himself as the hero of his own life and imagines life itself as a screenplay that he has the power to control. The people with whom he interacts are “scene partners.” He doesn’t engage in conversation; he speaks scripted dialogue. He even renders parts of his first-person narrative as movie scenes complete with dialogue, set descriptions, and stage directions.

As he struggles to cope with his sister’s untimely death (for which he at least partially blames himself), he also tries to help his mother come to terms with the loss (his father abandoned them long ago) as he discovers the limits of just how well he knows his best friend. And he’s falling in love for the first time.

Federle depicts these events with all of the sweet innocence and snide frustration that so deftly characterize adolescence. Although the novel tackles some heavy issues—coming out, the death of a loved one, first love, virginity (and the loss thereof)—it never feels particularly heavy. The novel’s sole weakness might be the blithe spirit with which it regards profound developmental aspects of maturity and sexuality, but its many attributes more than compensate for that.

The Night Eternal
The Night Eternal
by Chuck Hogan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.13
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3.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic but tidy conclusion to the series, June 18, 2016
This review is from: The Night Eternal (Hardcover)
This final volume in The Strain trilogy concludes the harrowing vampire apocalypse and recasts the story of the Master’s global dominance as a domestic redemption narrative of Eph and his shortcomings as a husband and a father.

Following the untimely demise of Setrakian (the story’s Van Helsing), Fet assumes the role of vampire-hunter-in-chief. He clearly supplants Eph as the leader of the anti-strigoi forces by also claiming the affections of Nora, Eph’s erstwhile partner, whom he loses because of his inability to reconcile his obsessions with his failed marriage and his missing son, whom the Master has abducted and is attempting to groom as his next corporeal vessel.

Unfortunately, these thematic shadings never fully blend with the story’s heavily plot-driven narrative. Balancing familial drama with global calamity is a delicate task; in the case of this novel, however, Eph’s personal angst seems to impede the progress of the apocalyptic vampires-vs-humans conflict (especially apparent in the preposterous subplot regarding Eph’s temptation to betray his fellow crusaders by engaging in a deal with the Master). While this novel provides a dramatic if tidy end to the series—and it’s a great leisure read—it loses steam when the narrative strays from its generic strengths.

Responding to Student Writers
Responding to Student Writers
by Nancy Sommers
Edition: Paperback
Price: $27.29
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5.0 out of 5 stars Clear and useful guide for novices and experienced teachers, April 28, 2016
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This slim volume (just about 50 pages), which I use in the Advanced Composition course I teach for pre-service English/Language Arts teachers, is a concentrated and highly practical guide for novice teachers and experienced teachers alike. Sommers clearly explains how and why feedback on drafts matters, and she stresses both effective pedagogy and the affective impact of teachers’ comments on students’ attitudes toward writing. Her approach is geared toward formative evaluation and its role as an instructional strategy, and she adopts a less-is-more mentality, urging teachers to focus their response on higher order elements of composition rather than editing and proofreading.

Sommers’ theories on teaching writing are compatible with Constance Weaver’s theories on teaching grammar “an inch wide and a mile deep”—focus on one or two selected skills within each assignment to build and develop each student’s proficiency rather than trying to address every “error” in the writing. She also includes samples of her own responses to drafts and a handy graphic listing Best Practices for responding to student writing. My students and I have found this guide to be extremely useful.

The Future of Us
The Future of Us
by Carolyn Mackler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.28
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2.0 out of 5 stars Charming potential...squandered on a hackneyed plot, March 29, 2016
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This review is from: The Future of Us (Paperback)
This Young Adult novel is constructed on an intriguingly charming premise—what if a 16 year-old girl logged on to the Internet (via AOL) in 1996 and stumbled upon Facebook, circa 2011? And what if she wasn’t quite pleased with what she discovered about her future self? And what if she shared her discovery with her next-door neighbor/best friend/inevitable future romantic partner and they simply didn’t know what to do about their newfound ability to peer into the future?

Told over the course of six consecutive days in a dual narrative format, with Emma and Josh (the young couple) alternating chapters, The Future of Us is a clever idea for a story in search of an actual plot. As one would expect from a YA novel, witty exchanges abound, friends date and break up, Emma moons over the hot jock (who—surprise!—turns out to be a jerk), Josh worries over the super-beautiful student council president, and there’s lots of talk of sex and curfews and skateboarding and bonfires and all of the other typical adolescent angst…all of which pretty much marginalizes the magical premise upon which the story is reputedly built. The idea of teenagers being able to literally see their futures is fraught with all kinds of creative narrative potential, but the plot devolves into Emma’s numerous attempts to alter her apparently unhappy future—all to no avail—until she comes to the rather pedestrian conclusion (once Facebook disappears from her Internet connection) that it’s pointless to worry about the future because what’s important is the present.

On a metaphorical level, the story implies that taking deliberate action to shape the future is futile—and if you can’t see the future, that means you don’t have to worry about it. And I’m not quite sure that’s a very healthy or empowering message to send to Young Adults.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Young Reader's Choice Award - Intermediate Division)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Young Reader's Choice Award - Intermediate Division)
by John Boyne
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.68
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5.0 out of 5 stars A WWII Fable--still relevant today, March 13, 2016
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Despite its almost naÔve perspective—events unfold through the eyes of 9-year old Bruno, the son of a Nazi Commandant—this fable (as the author classifies it on the title page) renders an incredibly powerful emotional wallop. Bruno is unaware of the nature of his father’s work, mainly due to a children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard approach from his parents. As the novel begins, Bruno and his family (father, mother, and older sister Gretel) are living in Berlin and enjoying a privileged life during the Third Reich.

Upset to learn that he and his family will be moving to Out-With because the Fury had ordered his father to relocate there, Bruno is bored with his new home, and he’s particularly despondent about leaving behind his friends. Seeking adventure in his new home, he discovers Shmuel, another 9-year old boy (who happens to share Bruno’s birthday), clad in striped pajamas and living on the other side of an enormous fence. Their friendship is doomed from the start, and Bruno’s poignant innocence proves even more consequential as the novel draws to its devastating close.

Boyne’s prose never wavers from its stylistic dedication to Bruno’s privileged naÔveté (he wonders why Shmuel and his family didn’t simply board the same train that he and his family boarded and why they didn’t enjoy the buffet on the trip) and his earnest desire for friends and adventure. And although we as readers understand the context that eludes Bruno, we are not quite prepared for the tragic consequences of Bruno’s innocent yearning for companionship. This novel clearly illustrates the oppressive effects of tyranny, injustice, and prejudice—not just on the oppressed but on all who are involved.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before
To All the Boys I've Loved Before
by Jenny Han
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.70
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pedestrian and cliched adolescent romance, March 7, 2016
I’ll begin this review by acknowledging that by no stretch of the imagination am I a part of this novel’s target demographic. This saccharine tale of “heartbreaking” teenage puppy love—which represents the contemporary YA equivalent of Frank Norris’ pithy critique of realist fiction (“the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner”)—portrays nothing so much as it does the absolute banality of adolescent romance and utterly fails to do what the best YA fiction does: transcend the genre.

Told from the perspective of Lara Jean Covey, a biracial (half Korean, half Caucasian) middle sister living with her widowed father and navigating the choppy waters of junior year, *To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before*—like the unfortunate Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias duet from whose title it differs by one word—is assembled from a seemingly random hodgepodge of gimmicks and clichés: an older sister leaving home for college abroad, a precocious and “charming” younger sister, a secret stash of love letters that mysteriously find their way to the intended recipients, the popular jock who turns out to be sweeter than everyone thinks he is, the pretty and vengeful popular girl who turns out to be meaner than everyone thinks she is, the sweet and reliable boy-next-door (literally), the ascot-wearing gay kid…and did I mention that the half-Asian protagonist is an awful driver?

So, to sum up, this is an adolescent version of a formulaic Harlequin romance—and it might not even be as harmless as all that, because it casually manages to reinforce some unfortunate ethnic and gender stereotypes. I’m still scratching my head over the implied similarity the book tries to draw between being biracial and being gay, but the real mystery might be how this mediocre effort ever ended up on the NY Times best-seller list.

Give a Boy a Gun
Give a Boy a Gun
by Todd Strasser
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.33
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4.0 out of 5 stars Communal tragedy told through a fractured narrative, February 21, 2016
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This review is from: Give a Boy a Gun (Paperback)
To tell the story of two alienated and disaffected teenagers who become obsessed with guns and bombs and ultimately vow to exact revenge on all the students, faculty members, and administrators at their school, Todd Strasser uses a quilt of voices to reflect the incomplete narrative that inevitably emerges from tragedies such as these.

None of the characters in this chronicle is developed in any conventional sense—and the underdevelopment of the characters, along with the hazy sense of plot, unconventional structure, and overall sense of detachment—are probably calculated and strategic risks to reflect the theme of incomprehensibility and senseless loss that accompanies the events in this novel (if this book may even be classified as a novel).

Brief portions of the narrative lapse into preachy homilies about bullying and tolerance, but it’s tough to object when there are no easy solutions. An unexpected and ironic development at the climax of the violence highlights the complexity of the issue, and no one escapes blame. Strasser acknowledges that we are all culpable—to some extant—for a culture that values violence over empathy.

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