Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks

So, you think you know everything there is to know about vampires, right? They are sexy, fierce, and sophisticated, lusty, smoldering and dangerous, and you even know one thing or two about how to defeat one. After all, you’ve picked up a lot of good information from all the books you have read. A stake through the heart, a crucifix in their snarling face, garlic draped around your neck will do the trick of disintegrating any vampire out into nothingness.  Well, you are dead wrong! Unless you are a vampire and want to avoid being staked for attacking other people, you have to admit you have a problem and join a support group. 

Meet Nina Harrison, a new addition to the vampire family. Actually, she is no longer that new. Fanged at fifteen back in 1973 and still living with her mother, Nina’s arrested development reveals an awkward teenage body in a fifty one year old mind, and she defies anything there is to know about vampires. Forever hungry and sick, she struggles to survive among us humans without infecting anyone else and without being detected. Half the time, she is nauseous, weak, tired and miserable. She spends her days locked up in her mother’s basement to avoid being turned to ashes by sunlight, and at night…. Well, at night she does what every other teenager does…sometimes. Aside from spending way too much time watching television sprawled on her couch, Nina is also a published author and wants to set the record straight. Her fiction may not be as popular as that of Stephenie Meyer, but then again, Nina does not want to attract too much attention due to her, let’s just say, special situation.  The highlights of her life are the Tuesday meetings of her support group when she joins a motley crew of reformed vampires. Much like at an AA meeting, Nina sits in to listen or talk about other people’s, uh, vampires’ problems. Led by Doctor Stanford Plackett, the oldest and wisest of them all, Dave, George, Horace, Casimir, Gladys, and Bridget get together to alleviate the loneliness of their existence and to come up with new ideas about how to deal not only with the isolation, but also with the indignities and the constant health problems they all face. After all, it is very difficult to cope alone as a reformed vampire. 

Their lives are as dull and depressing as it can get, until one day when they discover Casimir turned to ashes in his coffin. Faced with the terrifying possibility that all of them could be taken out one by one, Nina decides to prove once and for all that not all vampires are such pathetic losers. Along with Dave and Father Ramon, the human priest that caters to their needs during daytime, Nina embarks on a long journey into the Australian Outback to discover at the end of the trail an even more terrifying situation. Could she resist temptation and not succumb to the blood lust? 

A Top Ten 2010 Best Book for Young Adults winner, Catherine JinksThe Reformed Vampire Support Group published by Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin is a suspenseful mystery that would be gobbled up in no time by a ravenous high school crowd of readers. Not only the novel provides the entertaining value of the typical vampire books, but also it does so with a tongue and cheek, self-deprecating humor. Nina’s teenage awkwardness reverberates with any of today’s issues faced by young adults. Acceptance of one’s identity without admitting defeat and at the same time finding your place to belong appears to be the underlying theme of the novel.  Just because you are a sick vampire who has to take enzyme supplements to curtail the digestive cramps you suffer from does not mean you cannot lead a normal life. The novel’s well-paced action is peppered with some slower and somewhat superfluous scenes perhaps to reveal that just like real life, a vampire’s existence is not all that is cracked up to be.  The setting is rather dark and depressing, especially when Nina reveals the gory details of their eating habits, including the fact that they all have to clean up after themselves in order to avoid the wrath of her non vampire mother.  After all, if Nina would have listened to her mother and avoided the party that fateful night when she got drunk, she would not have gotten herself into such a conundrum. All in all, the novel tackles some deep and dark issues without talking down or preaching to its audience.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Survive Anything: Shark Attack, Lightning, Embarrassing Parents, Pop Quizzes and Other Perilous Situations by Rachel Buchholz and Illustrated by Chris Philpot

Face it! Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how much effort and time you put into that yearlong project, your assignment partner, that pesky girl you did not want to know at the beginning of the year who ended up being your best friend in the world, just turned her back on you after you have failed to deliver the speech your grade was hanging on! You freeze, you stop breathing, and you choke on your sobs. What do you do? What do you do? Well, look no further than a book packed with much needed advice for this type of situations.

A 2012 Quick Pick Nominee for Reluctant Readers in the nonfiction category, How to Survive Anything by Rachel Buchholz with illustrations by Chris Philpot and published by the National Geographic is a must have guide for anyone trying to survive the middle school years. Packed with fun but serious facts, the book is a humorous survival guide to help the youngest of the adults navigate the scariest years of their lives. Divided into thirty one easy to read chapters accompanied by brightly colored and often funny illustrations, How to Survive Anything is a self-help book combining advice that would help anyone acquire both survival skills as well as life skills. Not only Buchholz reveals how to survive chance encounters with a volcanic eruption, a tornado, a shark attack, a hurricane, or falling through ice, but she also delves into circumstances that are more common and scarier for today’s middle school grader, from how to survive embarrassing moments to how to survive a mean teacher, cyberbullying, or stressing out. Both sets of chapters are peppered with sound advice and fun filled factoids that explain little known phenomena or myths that have been debunked. Who knew that in the case of lightning, the intense heat emanated causes the surrounding air to expand very fast, and when it does, it creates the noise we call thunder? The explanation about how lightning is generated is both factual and also relatable to young audiences. The theory behind lightning formation becomes a metaphor for the greatest love story of all times: Romeo and Juliet. With Romeo representing the larger particles (within a cloud) that become negatively charged, and Juliet representing the smaller particles positively charged, the attraction or electrical potential becomes too strong for the aforementioned particles to stay separated any longer. When they cannot keep apart anymore, they charge towards each other and the attraction becomes literally electric. All the pent up electricity is released as lightning. 

Aside from enlightening the young adult reluctant reader on earthquakes, avalanches, snakebites, or wildfires, Buchholz alternates these chapters with advice on how to survive the daily grind of middle school. Packed with plenty of advice, the author reveals how to deal and minimize the damage of stressing out by taking the reader through a step by step method on how to take control of the situation before it gets out of hand. From making a to-do list and keeping a calendar to breaking big projects into little chunks, or even cleaning one’s room, Buchholz reveals that it is all about prioritizing and organizing, not only your time but also your space. The conversational tone of the book makes it an easy, breezy and fun read. The photos and illustrations on each page make it appealing as they draw in any reluctant reader. It would be a great addition to any social studies class in middle school. Anyone from grades 5 to 9 would find the easy to follow tips and humorous illustrations a compelling and fun read. So, if you want to find out how to survive your embarrassing parents, a fight with your best friend, or being the new kid on the block, alongside tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards, this is the book for you!