Wednesday, November 30, 2011

0 James Joyce: A Life by Edna O'Brien review

Title: James Joyce: A Life
Author: Edna O'Brien
Pulbisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: November 29, 2011
paperback, 179 pages
ISBN: 978-0-14-311993-7
Genre: Biography

Arguably the most influential writer of the twentieth century, James Joyce continues to inspire writers, readers, and thinkers today. Now Edna O'Brien, herself one of Ireland's great writers, approaches the master as only a fellow countryman can. From Joyce's adolescence through his travels abroad to the publication of Ulysses-the scandalous masterpiece that was initially banned in the U nited States but later hailed as one of the most brilliant novels of the twentieth century-O'Brien traces the arc of Joyce's remarkable life. Her biography is a tribute, at once affectionate and stern, from a contemporary writer to one of our most significant literary ancestors.

James Joyce was an author who could easily have been classified as mad or brilliant or perhaps both. Edna O'Brien gives us a glimpse into James Joyce's unconventional life in her novel, James Joyce: A Life. I wanted to read this book because James Joyce is on my list of authors whose books I need to read. I've had Dubliners sitting on my shelf unread for the longest time. However I have managed to read a few of his works so I didn't feel totally unprepared. 
Edna O'Brien touches on various points in Joyce's life from birth to death. From Joyce's dysfunctional family life to his volatile marriage to his wife, Nora. O'Brien includes many interesting facts about Joyce's rise to fame. His peculiar tendencies and his prideful nature.
I think if I had read more of Joyce's novels before hand it would have helped me to decipher and make the character connections even more so.  O'Brien did a fairly good job in trying to correlate the influences in Joyce's life to the characters in his novels. This is also a short biography so it doesn't go into great detail about Joyce's life. However this is a great introduction to James Joyce. 
Overall this is a good read. It's an insightful look into one of literature's treasures. This biography is really enjoyable and I'm so glad that I read it. Now it's time to dust Dubliners off the shelf.
My rating:

Find out more about this author by visiting:

Click here for a chance to win James Joyce: A Life

*I received this book from the publisher for review purposes only. This in no way influenced my opinion.

0 December Giveaways Around the Blogging World

If you have a giveaway going on, why don't you link it up here? I'll help spread the word! All you have to do fill out Mr.Linky below. Don't forget to put when your giveaway ends. If you have any questions you can email me or @ me on twitter(@2readornot2read).  Bookish giveaways only please. 

EXAMPLE of how to fill out the linky:
You have 50 characters to describe your giveaway for example:
Link title/ blog title: This is where you put what you're giving away
EXAMPLE: $10 amazon gift card, ends 10/25
Link: put a direct link to your giveaway

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

1 Nicholas: The Fantastic Origin of Santa Claus by Cody W. Urban

After a betrayal and a stolen love, an average Roman soldier takes a path of revenge by igniting hope in the people to revolt against a corrupt governor, fulfilling his destiny to become the saint we now know as Santa Claus. Nicholas: The Fantastic Origin of Santa Claus is the epic adventure story of many Christmas tradition origins and the tale of a selfless hero who fought for children in the name of love.

Read the first chapter below. You can adjust the settings on the top to make it easier for you to view.
The book is available on many major online book retailers: Amazon | B&N
Check out Cody Urban's website here:

Monday, November 28, 2011

8 Teaser Tuesday November 29, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today's teaser comes from Love Unscripted by Tina Reber. 
"From my current angle, I took in the visions of his long legs and how the back pockets of his jeans curved on his shape. And when he leaned over the table, my blue T-shirt separated from his body exposing some tight flesh on his stomach. I could see what the big draw was for his fans....and it wasn't his pool playing skills." ~31~

I'm kinda in-love with the main character, Ryan Christiansen. If you have a teaser, let me know in the comments and I'll come visit.

0 Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley review

Title: Charles Dickens: A Life
Author: Jane Smiley
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: November 29, 2011
paperback, 212 pages
ISBN: 978-0-14-311992-0
Genre: Biography

With delectable wit and characteristic sensitivity, Jane Smiley presents a fresh, illuminating take on the life of Charles Dickens. Smiley naturally finds a kindred spirit in the author of such classics as Great Expectationsand A Christmas Carol, who was not only a prolific writer but also one of the first modern "celebrities." She offers interpretations of many of Dickens's major works, exploring his narrative techniques and his innovative voice and themes. Smiley's Charles Dickens is at once a perceptive profile of the great master and a fascinating meditation on the writing life.

My thoughts:
Chances are sometime in your life you've been introduced to Charles Dickens, weather it be from reading his novels or seeing his characters come to life on film and stage. One of his popular holiday books, A Christmas Carol  is well known. I know I've watched on television quite a few film versions from the classic 1939 movie to The Muppets and to the 2009 remake.  A Christmas Carol was the first novel I read by Charles Dickens. My seventh grade teacher tortured us with the complexity of Dickens. I say tortured because my young mind couldn't yet fathom the complexities of his novels. I didn't learn to appreciate Dickens until later in life. In fact I've even read a few of his novels for pleasure. That's right no grade was involved.  But who is the man behind these novels? What inspired him? What drove him?
Charles Dickens: A Life by Pulitzer Prize winner, Jane Smiley is an interesting portrait of the man behind the novels. Instead of writing about Dickens from birth to death, Smiley concentrates on what influenced Dickens at the time of his writing. Charles Dickens was an eccentric character. He was a bit flamboyant, charismatic, very intelligent  and socially conscious.   He was also peculiar. His life and writing was influenced by many things that happened in his childhood,  his personal views on marriage, and his social responsibilities. He was a hard working man. Always on the go. Charles Dickens was a rock star of the literary world. People loved and hated him. Jane Smiley brings out the intricacies of Charles Dickens life. She introduces a more private side of Dickens and how his choices influenced his novels. 
I've read a few biographies about Charles Dickens but I really enjoyed this book. Jane Smiley did a fantastic job of showing different sides of the mysterious Dickens through his literary masterpieces.  Charles Dickens: A Life is full of valuable information that will have you not only understanding the man behind the public figure but also his novels. I think this is definitely a book any Dickens fan would love to read. 
My rating:

Find out more about this author by visiting:

Enter for a chance to win this book by clicking here.
*I received this book from the publisher for review purposes only. This in no way influenced my review.

0 Charles Dickens/James Joyce Giveaway

Thanks to Penguin Books I have a copy of two fantastic biographies to giveaway. James Joyce:A Life by Edna O'Brien and Charles Dickens:A Life by Jane Smiley. I've read them both and can tell you they'd make a great addition to any home library. To enter all you need to do is fill out the form below. This giveaway is for US addresses only. You must be at least 13 years old to enter. You can enter to win both books if you'd like. Please make sure to review my giveaway policy before filling out the form. Giveaway ends December 5, 2011. If you're having trouble viewing the forms, click here for James Joyce and here for Charles Dickens.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

8 Kersten Hamilton Guestpost and Tyger, Tyger Giveaway

Today Kersten Hamilton stops by to talk about the mythologies behind the Goblin Wars in her novels, Tyger, Tyger and In the Forest of the Night. If you've not read these books yet, I strongly recommend them.

Hi, Marcie! Thank you for letting me talk about the Irish—and other—mythologies behind the Goblin Wars, and why I chose them.

My Goblin Wars books fall into a subset of fantasy called mythopoeia, which incorporates mythological themes and archetypes into newly created worlds.

J.R.R. Tolkien first described the genre after he’d argued with C.S. Lewis about the value of myth. Lewis contended “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'.” Tolkien thought differently. He famously wrote a poem in response to Lewis:

C.S. Lewis was eventually convinced of the worth of myth—the connection with True Myth in the stories of all cultures—and went on to write mythopoeia of his own.

Authors such as Tolkien or Lewis create whole new mythologies—others, like Neil Gaiman, use a mash–up of existing mythologies.  My Goblin Wars series uses Celtic and Nordic myth as well as the concept of devolution—creatures becoming less than they were created to be— which was described by my favorite (and greatest ever) mythopoeia writer, George MacDonald.

I chose to use a base of Celtic myth because my own roots are Welsh/Irish and the stories resonate very deeply in me. I think that’s because the ancient Celts never built walls between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. The Green Man peeks out of carvings in Celtic churches right alongside the saints and Apostles. Early Irish Christians were not at all surprised at all to find angels working right along side them in their fields, running in footraces at fairs, or climbing in the windows of churches (and leaving muddy boot prints across the floor) as they went to light the altar candles.

The Christianity that found its way to the green isles was…different…to say the least. It was based on intimate fellowship with the Divine, and a celebration of the goodness of creation. It traced its roots not through Augustine and Rome to the authority St. Peter, but through Aidan of Lindisfarne and Iona to the love of St. John, the disciple who leaned his head against Jesus’ chest at the last supper. To the Celts this was an image of the believer listening for the heartbeat of God—and they had been listening for the heartbeat of the Creator of creation since before the dawn of time.

I added the Nordic elements because I love the Nordic tradition almost as much as I love the Celtic—I see the True Myth laced like silver and gold through them both.

Marla at Starting the Next Chapter ( did a great post about the Celtic creatures that wander through my books. They have changed in my story, of course—devolved, as George MacDonald would say. Marla did such an excellent job in her post that I think I’ll take this chance to talk about a couple of the Nordic elements here, and how they have changed.

Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree, also called the World Tree, links all of the worlds of creation.  The wells of wisdom and fate lie at Yggdrasil’s roots.

In the world of The Goblin Wars, ancient trees are watchers and keepers. Yggdrasil grows in Mag Mell, and when trees of other worlds—such as our own—grow old enough, their roots reach down to him and he wakes them. The deep pools of Mag Mell have elements of the wells of wisdom and fate, as well.

Skogkatt are Nordic forest and mountain–dwelling fairy cats. Skogkatt pulled the chariot of Freya, the goddess of love. I love the skogkatt!

But in the world of the Goblin Wars, Mab and Fear Doirich (the Dark Man) traveled through all the worlds of creation calling for creatures to follow them in war—and some of the skogkatt followed the evil creatures away. Those who never left the Dark Man have devolved into the truly horrible cat–sídhe who haunt the Irish Travelers and hunt the Mac Cumhaill.

I hope your readers pick up one of my books to see what other kinds of mythical creatures they might find!

Kersten Hamilton

Thank you Kersten Hamilton! I think the mythology behind these books is facinating. If you've not read Tyger, Tyger or In the Forest of the Night you need to. If you have a Kindle or a Nook you can purchase the book for $2.69/$2.99 right now. This price only lasts until Nov. 30. Also if you get a chance, stop by Marla at Starting the Next Chapter. She has an awesome blog.


Teagan Wylltson's best friend, Abby, dreams that horrifying creatures--goblins, shape-shifters, and beings of unearthly beauty but terrible cruelty--are hunting Teagan. Abby is always coming up with crazy stuff, though, so Teagan isn't worried. Her life isn't in danger. In fact, it's perfect. She's on track for a college scholarship. She has a great job. She's focused on school, work, and her future. No boys, no heartaches, no problems. 

Until Finn Mac Cumhaill arrives. Finn's a bit on the unearthly beautiful side himself. He has a killer accent and a knee-weakening smile. And either he's crazy or he's been haunting Abby's dreams, because he's talking about goblins, too . . . and about being The Mac Cumhaill, born to fight all goblin-kind. Finn knows a thing or two about fighting. Which is a very good thing, because this time, Abby's right. The goblins are coming

Thanks to Kersten Hamilton I'm giving away one paperback copy of Tyger, Tyger. All you need to do to enter is fill out the form below. If you have trouble viewing the form click here. This giveaway is open internationally. You must be at least 13 years old to enter. You don't have to be a follower to enter. It's appreciated but not necessary. This giveaway ends December 5, 2011. Good luck everyone! 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

1 What's Your Status? November 26, 2011

Zakiya from Butterfly Feet Walking on Life has a fantastic meme. In this meme you post your status of the books your reading this week, books you finished this week, books you're going to read next, and books you plan on buying this week. You can also post what reviews and memes you participated in for the week. 

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I didn't get as much reading done this weekend as I wanted but I at least finished one book.  Currently I'm reading three really good books that are really different. I'm having a hard time choosing between them.  Let me know what you're reading in the comments. 

Last week I finished:
Charles Dickens: A Life
by Jane Smiley

Currently I'm reading:

Next on my TBR pile:

Current Giveaways:

Chain Gang Elementary giveaway ends Nov. 30, 2011

Thursday, November 24, 2011

0 Happy Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for all you wonderful people who share my love of reading. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. To all my international followers I hope you have a great weekend too. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

0 Humpday Giveaway winner

To last week's Humpday Giveaway winner:

*Humpday Giveaway is going on hiatus for the holiday season and will return in January. There will still be giveaways going on during the holidays just not this weekly one. Please be sure to check the sidebar for current giveaways. 

0 In the Forests of the Night by Kersten Hamilton review

Title: In the Forest of the Night (The Goblin Wars #2)
Author: Kersten Hamilton
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: November 22, 2011
paperback arc, 295 pages
ISBN: 978-0-547-43560-2
Genre: YA, Fantasy

This is the 2nd book in the Goblin Wars series. If you've not read Tyger, Tyger this review will contain spoilers. 

The battle against goblinkind continues . . . but which side will Teagan be on? 

Teagan, Finn, and Aiden have made it out of Mag Mell alive, but the Dark Man’s forces are hot on their heels. Back in Chicago, Tea’s goblin cousins show up at her school, sure she will come back to Mag Mell, as goblin blood is never passive once awoken. Soon she will belong to Fear Doirich and join them. In the meantime, they are happy to entertain themselves by trying to seduce, kidnap, or kill Tea’s family and friends. Tea knows she doesn’t have much time left, and she refuses to leave Finn or her family to be tortured and killed. A wild Stormrider, born to rule and reign, is growing stronger inside her. But as long as she can hold on, she’s still Teagan Wylltson, who plans to be a veterinarian and who heals the sick and hurting. The disease that’s destroying her—that’s destroying them all—has a name: Fear Doirich. And Teagan Wylltson is not going to let him win.

My thoughts:
In the Forest of the Night by Kersten Hamilton is the second book in The Goblin Wars series. The First book, Tyger, Tyger really blew me away. So of course I was excited to read the next book in the series. In the Forest of the Night picks up virtually where Tyger, Tyger left off. Teagan is dealing with the knowledge of finding out who she really is and how it's going to affect the rest of her life. Her feelings for Finn are not helping either. She's a goblin while he's a goblin hunter really put wrench in the romance department. It also asks the question "which side should Teagan be fighting for?" I think Kersten Hamilton does great job with Teagan's character. Teagan has a lot of internal conflict in dealing with what she knows of goblins and who she really is. 
The first two-thirds of this novel doesn't have a lot of action going on. It's mostly dealing with the aftermath that happened in Tyger, Tyger. There are still a lot of things that have to be dealt with. One in particular is the pair of baddies that want Teagan's brother Aiden as well as a bunch of creepers who are keeping their sights on this group. Aiden has special abilities that the evil ones will stop at nothing to get. Teagan is very protective oven Aiden and will do anything to protect him. 
One thing that I absolutely love about this series is that even though Teagan and Finn are 'soulmates' she doesn't automatically throw everything away just to be with him. Teagan has hopes and dreams that she wants to accomplish. I think this makes her one of the stronger female protagonist in YA literature that I've seen in awhile. This book is full of interesting and amusing characters. I love Abby. I think she's hilarious. I also love Mamieo who is full of gumption. 
This series is a must read. It has Irish Folklore, star crossed lovers, humor, poetry, and Finn. I can't wait to see what happens in the next book. This is a pretty clean book for ages 12 and up. There's a little kissing and two curse words. 
My rating:

Find out more about the author by visiting:
website |  unblog |twitter  

Also by Kersten Hamilton

*I received this book from the publisher for review purposes only. This in no way influenced my opinion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

5 Teaser Tuesday November 22, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
This week's teaser comes from In the Forests of the Night by Kersten Hamilton. My quote comes from an uncorrected proof so it may not be in the finished copy. 

"To Italian. Our angels have wings. Our saints stay in church where they belong. If the goblins haunted one of us like Thomas was talking about, the Family would take care of it. You know what I'm saying?' ~pg. 100~

I know this is longer than two sentences but I had to share it because I thought it's funny. If you have a teaser, leave a link in the comments so I can check it out. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

4 The Water Wars by Cameron Strachner review

Title: The Water Wars
Author: Cameron Stracher
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: January 1, 2011
paperback, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-6759-8
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Vera and her brother, Will, live in the shadow of the Great Panic, in a country that has collapsed from environmental catastrophe. Water is hoarded by governments, rivers are dammed, and clouds are sucked from the sky. But then Vera befriends Kai, who seems to have limitless access to fresh water. When Kai suddenly disappears, Vera and Will set off on a dangerous journey in search of him-pursued by pirates, a paramilitary group, and greedy corporations. Timely and eerily familiar, acclaimed author Cameron Stracher makes a stunning YA debut that's impossible to forget. 

My thoughts:
The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher is a dystopian novel set in the not so distant future. Many of the natural resources that we enjoy today have been depleted. The population is left to depend on the government for the means of survival. However some people hold out hope for a better future, some take it at the cost of others, and some are set to destroy it.

I think the concept of this book is really interesting. We use water everyday for many different things but have you ever stopped to think what you would do if suddenly water wasn't available to us anymore.  Things we take for granted such as showers, swimming pools and bubble baths would be but a distant memory. Cameron Stracher does a good job painting this scenario. There is definitely a message of conservation interwoven throughout this novel. 

The Water Wars is told through the eyes of Vera. She's a young teen who lives at home with her older brother, father and mother who is ill. Vera meets Kai one day while waiting for her school bus. Kai is different from anyone she has ever known. She knows from the beginning that there is something different about him. Vera and Kai become instant friends that are inseparable. One day Kai disappears. Vera is fearful of his life and immediately goes in search of him with her brother Will. Together the embark on a journey that leads them to uncover the truth that could change their future.

Overall I thought this book was good. It definitely makes you think about all the water you consume and about your carbon footprint. The story line was a little slow in the beginning but about half way through it really picks up and it's full of action. I like Vera and Will. They were both really courageous. I also like the fact they were both just normal kids. This book is full of unique characters. I like the pirates in this book. They are an interesting addition to this novel.  The Water Wars is a very interesting read that will have you on your toes. 

What's one thing you'd miss if water was rationed? I think I'd miss coffee the most.

My rating:

*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a review. This in no way influenced my opinion.

0 What's Your Status November 20, 2011

Zakiya from Butterfly Feet Walking on Life has a fantastic meme. In this meme you post your status of the books your reading this week, books you finished this week, books you're going to read next, and books you plan on buying this week. You can also post what reviews and memes you participated in for the week. 

Last week I finished:

The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher

Currently I'm reading:

In the Forest of the Night 
by Kersten Hamilton

Next in the TBR stack:

Charles Dickens: A Life
by Jane Smiley

Current Giveaways:

Humpday Giveaway ends Nov. 22, 2011
Chain Gang Elementary giveaway ends Nov. 30, 2011

That's my status for this week, what's yours? 

Friday, November 18, 2011

0 Christmas at Pemberley by Regina Jeffers review

Title: Christmas at Pemberley
Author: Regina Jeffers
Publisher: Ulysses Press
Publication Date: November 7, 2011
paperback, 350 pages
ISBN: 978-1-56975-991-2
Genre: Jane Austen sequels

It's Christmastime at Pemberley and the Darcys and Bennets have gathered to celebrate. With such a mix of eclectic characters under one roof, bitter feuds, old jealousies, and intimate secrets come to the surface. Stubborn Lady Catherine seeks forgiveness, shallow Caroline Bingley finds love, and immature Kitty pursues a vicar. Forced into playing hostess, Georgiana tries desperately to manage the chaos while wishing Darcy and Elizabeth would return from their trip.
Enroute home, Darcy and Elizabeth are waylaid by a blizzard that forces them to take shelter in a nearby inn. Elizabeth is tormented that they will spend Christmas away from their families, but when a young couple arrives at the inn in need of a place for the night, Elizabeth's concern turns to the pregnant girl. As Elizabeth and Darcy comfort and soothe her through a long and painful labor, they’re reminded of the love, family spirit, and generosity that lie at the heart of Christmas.

My thoughts:
Christmas at Pemberley by Regina Jeffers is a sequel to the ever popular Pride and Prejudice. This book, as the title suggests, takes place at Christmas time a few years after the Darcy's have been married. However it's not the happily ever after as we hoped it would be. Elizabeth still hasn't produced an heir. The stress of daily life and disappointment has taken it's toll on the happy couple. Darcy in hopes of lifting Elizabeth's spirits has asked that she accompany him on a business trip before Christmas. 
The first part of this book has two major story lines going on. The first story line is Elizabeth and Darcy as they are trapped by a sudden snow storm. They take shelter in an inn. Elizabeth is anxious to get back to Pemberley but the weather keeps them grounded. The inn quickly fills up leaving a late arriving couple without accommodation. Elizabeth quickly takes a liking to the young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph. Elizabeth realized that Mrs. Mary Joseph is very pregnant and makes it her mission to help the couple as much as possible.
If you put two and two together you can see what's going to happen in this part of the story. However Regina Jeffers gives a fresh and interesting prospective that is enjoyable to read.
The second story line takes place at Pemberley. Georgiana has been left in charge. In the original Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana is a shy unassuming girl. So for her to be hostess to a gathering of people is a big deal. While Darcy and Elizabeth are away chaos ensues. The small gathering they were expecting multiplies. When the likes of Lady Catherine, Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins all gather under one roof it would try even Mother Theresa's patience. Georgiana has to deal with a lot.
I like both of these story lines. Darcy and Elizabeth's was more sentimental. The author deals with themes such as overcoming a loss and finding your inner strength. Georgiana and Pemberley had humor, scandal and intrigue. I thought Regina Jeffers did a fantastic job with the characters. 
If you're looking for a great book to read during the holidays or you just need your daily Darcy fix, you should read this book. I enjoyed it from cover to cover. I have read a few books by Regina Jeffers and she always entertains me. 
My rating:

Find out more about this author by visiting:

Other books by Regina Jeffers

*I received a copy of this novel from the publishers for review purposes only. This in no way influenced my opinion. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

3 Chain Gang Elementary Excerpt and Giveaway

One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind has been an over-reliance on high
stakes testing and a lamentable, but somewhat predictable, outbreak of cheating on tests–not by
students, but by teachers and administrators anxious to receive praise and avoid censure.
Jonathan Grant’s new novel, Chain Gang Elementary, has its own testing issues and explores an
entirely new way to change test results. The following passage comes from Chapter Seventeen, in
the middle of the story (and doesn’t give away any of the plot).
Elementary Madness: The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test
from Chain Gang Elementary by Jonathan Grant, copyright 2011. All rights reserved
Due to federal mandate, learning was put on hold in February. The Better Schools
initiative—or BS, as teachers called it—required high-stakes, curriculum-based testing. For
reasons known only to bureaucrats, the state examined students on their cumulative grade-level
learning with three months still to go in the school year. The state’s Department of Education had
adopted the unfortunately but aptly named Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test to
measure progress. Its acronym was never used, for obvious reasons. County educators referred to
it as DESI (Don’t Even Say It), and some irreverent teachers called it DUMP.
Though often ridiculed, the test was no laughing matter. Pride, money, stars, and housing
prices rode on the results. Teachers in schools with improved test scores received bonuses;
schools with declining scores faced sanctions. In the past, Malliford Elementary had nothing to
fear. But now the influx of underachievers from Chantilly Arms threatened to lower scores and
put the school on the state’s Needs Improvement list (often called the SHIT list, for obvious
reasons). This would be an unmitigated disaster, but it could get even worse. After a school
languished for three years on the Needs Improvement list, its teachers were taken out behind the
trailers and shot. At least that’s how Mrs. Leland explained it to PTO President Richard Gray.
With its status as a good school on the line, the stakes were terribly high. Since December,
Mrs. Baines, Malliford’s vice principal, did little besides what she called “testprep.” No one took
DESI more seriously than reigning Teacher of the Year Sarah Vandenburg, who gave her
second-graders practice exams the first day of school and tested them weekly thereafter—and let
them watch TV, until she got caught.
Despite the newly challenging demographics, Malliford Principal Estelle Rutherford
demanded that test scores rise. She also suggested heads would roll if they didn’t. She’d already
picked heads, having established scapegoats like Avon Little by filling their rooms with
Thus motivated by the principal’s shrill cheerleading, teachers masked their desperation with
pasted-on smiles as testing week drew near. They tried to create a festive air in their classrooms,
handing out balloons, promising parties for high-scoring classes, and sending brightly-colored
notes home to parents with tips on “how to get your students on the winning team.” Miz R’s
“Secret Formula for Success” called for an 8:00 p.m. bedtime and a hearty breakfast on testing
days. She also suggested kids watch TV to relax.
Richard considered this last idea a terrible one, and he would have said something to the
principal had they been on speaking terms. Instead, he editorialized against it in February’s Duck
Call, urging kids to read a book instead, and quoted Stan to piss off the principal even more.
Unfortunately, Richard no longer knew how many newsletters actually made it home to parents,
since some other teachers now followed Mrs. Vandenburg’s lead and threw them away.
Though appalled at the school’s excessive zeal, Richard did hope Malliford would gain a
top-ten ranking on his watch. A home in a five-star school district was worth $30,000 more than
one in a four-star zone, according to Barbara. If he was ever going to get out of town, he wanted
cash from the deal. This made him one of many “whores for scores,” as Rita so indelicately put
* * *
Miz Rutherford devoutly believed a diet of grapes and bottled water for test-takers would
help her win that elusive fifth star. She’d been preaching this message for months and needed the
PTO’s help to get the word out to parents of test takers.
“It’s scientific,” she’d previously explained to the PTO board. “Grapes assist the brain in the
hydration process, which speeds up decision making, as anyone familiar with brain-based
learning models understands.” She’d finished off with an imperious glare at Candace and Cindi
“So kids still get wrong answers, just quicker,” Richard quipped from the podium.
“You’re missing the point,” she said.
Then again, he’d missed every point she’d jabbed at him. Richard turned to the Drug
Awareness chairperson and said, “This grape thing explains why people who drink a lot of wine
think they’re smart.”
This prompted titters, but the overall mood was sober and serious. Some board members
worried about allergic reactions and frequent bathroom breaks brought on by this brain-hosing.
However, most believed in trying anything that might improve test scores, so they ignored
warnings about poop and pee on first-grade floors from Candace, who glared back at the
principal as she spoke.
A motion calling for the PTO “to make necessary arrangements to assure an ample supply of
grapes during testing” was quashed by Bessie Harper, mother of all room mothers, when she said
the magic words every president longs to hear: “Don’t bother. I’ll take care of it.”
Bessie’s first e-mail to room mothers called for green grapes and half-liter bottles of water.
After Mrs. Baines yelped “Wrong grapes! Wrong grapes!” in the hall to Richard, e-mail
corrections went out calling for red grapes. A parent wanted to know if purple grapes were
acceptable. More checking, another e-mail: “Due to lack of research on purple or black grapes,
those varieties should not be used. Parents should send red grapes, seedless of course.”
Richard referred to these in his e-mails as The Grapes of Math.
A question arose: What brand of water was best? Another flurry of e-mails: Miz Rutherford
declared Hydrate the brand of choice. Its parent company happened to back The Mentoring
Initiative and planned to install soft-drink machines in the school. Richard tried to start a rumor
that top schools used Perrier, but his pernicious claim never took hold.
“What if scores go down?” Bessie asked him during the second round of e-mails.
“Then we sell the information to Hydrate’s competitors,” Richard replied. “As a fund-raiser.”
* * *
On February 12, parents and teachers held their collective breath as students began taking
DESIs with all the earnest zealousness of a “Duck and Cover” air raid drill. With rankings on the
line, every other school and student in the state was their enemy, while sharpened pencils and
childish wits were their only friends. One way or another, they would fulfill the BS mandate.
What kind of test-takers were these Mallifordians? Would the world bow down before them,
or would they be Underintellachievers, road kill on the superhighway to tomorrow?
Deep in the bowels of Malliford, someone already had an idea how it would turn out.
Come, let us test now, said the spider to the flies.

To purchase Chain Gang Elementaryclick here for optionsFor Grant's Darwin-Awardish take on education, check out The Chain Gang Blog, and for news about the book, visit Chain Gang Elementary's facebook page.

Jonathan Grant has generously offered to give away 5 copies of his novel, Chain Gang Elementary. This giveaway is for US addresses only. You must be 16 or older to enter. Please fill out the form to be entered into this giveaway. If you have trouble viewing the form, click here. Giveaway Ends November 30, 2011. Good luck! 


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