Reviews / Comments

Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Best in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Lowenburg, Bill. The Zorki Chronicles. 9781492274742. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. $15.29. 464p. Realistic Fiction  Gr. 9+.

Miles Parker is not your typical high school senior. Sure, he doesn’t attend school as often as he should – only two teachers keep him engaged – but who could blame him? Mom died when he was 4 and workaholic dad is away on business for months at a time. But with all this freedom, Miles doesn’t drink, do drugs, or play video games as you would expect. He and his math genius best friend Bird read the classics, are vegan, and care about world events. Miles is a gifted athlete who has thrown in the towel on all school sports for reasons that are unclear, and now his main interest is taking photos with a vintage Russian camera, the Zorki, he picked up on eBay. Turns out some of those Zorki photos start his troubles.

In a set of circumstances that would sound utterly contrived if not ripped from recent headlines, a famously attractive but completely unqualified woman – “Cowgirl” Connie – wins the presidency after a contested election, has now sent troops to Pakistan and Mexico, and is about to reinstate the draft.  Miles, Bird, and the very human cast of characters that inhabit this book take us on a page-turning trip through a frighteningly plausible present or near future where we’re fighting wars on multiple fronts and our personal liberties are continually threatened. A blend of political thriller and human drama, this book is a must-read for your politically engaged and socially passionate students as well as adults. Visit zorkichronicles.com and this book is also available in on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle ereader format.

I typically read several books a week and give myself permission to give up on a book if I’m not engaged by page 100. So with that volume of type flowing through my brain, it happens only once or twice a year that I am sad to put down a book when I reach the end; this is one of those books. Set in a small Pocono Mountain town, much of the setting and many of the characters in this book felt very real and familiar to me. Dialog and situations are authentic, and while it’s teen-centric I would readily recommend it to my adult friends. The author employs a clever device: beginning each chapter with three news headlines, many of which could be torn from today’s papers, as a terrific way to establish time and place and set the tone. This is the second work by high school teacher librarian Bill Lowenburg – his first, Crash Burn Love, was a monograph of photographs and essays about demolition derby – and I look forward to his next book!

Kathie Jackson, Librarian, Plymouth Meeting Friends School 

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Tri-State Book Review Committee

This committee is made up of librarians from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Review 1

Summary: Miles documents his town, friends, and political issues with his Zorki (camera that uses film). Set in the near future, national government and school policies are all under attack by Miles and his close friends. Can student dissent create change? Gr. 9+

Critical annotation: Who isn’t attracted to the opening line: “Never let school interfere with your education.”? This sets the tone for inquisitive, thoughtful teens who are in for a treat as they read about Miles, an intelligent, rule breaking teen who is abandoned by his single father; his best friend Bird, a walking encyclopedia and math freak; and Katie, NHS President but living a double life in private. When Miles completes a Problems of Democracy class project, he is  interrogated by the FBI because of photos showing him objecting to the president of the United States. Set in the near future, this book will cause the reader to question how prescient the headlines that start each chapter may be. New has degenerated into tabloid headlines with a nugget of chilling “hard news” thrown in. As Miles becomes a “forced dropout” due to violating school rules, he gets an education from the adults in the community.  Miles dabbles in photography and classic literary works of dissent from Russian writers to current writers. Can he and his close friends create change through civil disobedience? The ending brings back the “Crash Burn Love” demolition derby from Lowenburg’s previous book, decisions related to unwanted pregnancy, the new military draft, and ponders what the future might hold for Miles and others. Thoughtful reading that seamlessly blends fact, wit, and humor.

Recommended for high schools that cater to thoughtful readers and adult collections where nostalgic adults wonder if modern youth will ever be able to band together and rise up to create change as they did in the 1960s.

Lois McNicol, September 2014

Review 2

Summary: Miles searches for self-identity after walking away from sports. He finds inspiration through the viewfinder of his camera. Hs/adult

Critical annotation: Miles is a disenfranchised high school senior. On his own most of the time, as his workaholic father travels on business and his mother has passed away, Mile rebels by walking away from sports, even though he excels at baseball. When that fails to capture his father’s attention, Miles ditches classes and instead fills his time with taking photographs with a vintage Russian camera, the Zorki, that he picked up on eBay.

From this point on, the book becomes a page-turning political thriller. “Cowgirl” Connie, a woefully underqualified presidential candidate, wins the election and the United States is soon fighting a war on multiple fronts and personal liberties are vanishing. Each chapter features three news headlines that set the time, place, and tone. It is clearly a world defined by fear, and yet Miles continues to pursue his ideals of respect and integrity while living for his art. Cognizant that he cannot be an agent for change, Miles instead records the issues via his Zorki. Inevitably, Miles’ photographs become an issue.

This is a compelling coming-of-age-story with a strong, authentic voice.

Hillary Welliver, September 2014

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Here’s what readers had to say about the first two chapters of The Zorki Chronicles preview on CreateSpace.com:

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“I’m a junior in high school and I read about 50 books per year. This is a perfect young adult book because its about finding yourself and a lot of teens are in the process of doing just that.”

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“I’m a sophomore in college. I believe that like me, many other young adults of this generation would identify with the main character, Miles Parker. As a senior in high school, he is on the threshold of adolescence and adulthood. Everyone is not a pacifist, but there is certainly much unrest in our society today, and young people are increasingly politically active. A dancer, I also relate to the efforts of Parker to speak through art. My passion – dance – and Parker’s passion – photography – are guaranteed by the First Amendment, as Chapter Two reminds us. This alternative, more creative route to instigating change is refreshing. It inspires young adults to start thinking more outside the box to shape our world.

Many elements of the story would work well as a movie. The story flows seamlessly; transitions between scenes would, too. Dialogue between characters is witty and amusing. Descriptions of people and places are so vivid that the story’s movie was already playing in my mind. Fine-tuned, minute details are slipped in, not blaring; Bird’s opening day fashion choice of the YES shirt is one example. Just as readers will laugh when they read this in the opening chapter, viewers will laugh when they notice Bird’s shirt in the opening scene. Many Hollywood movie hits feature high-school-aged main characters, and Miles Parker fits that bill. The high school student spirit is so lovable. I was reminded of a cross between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Juno. Small-town main character has big-time problems and high hopes for his and the world’s future.

Many of us feel that we are stuck somewhere – at a point in our lives, in an undesirable environment – etc., and Parker is a reflection of that. Stuck in the small, banal town of Pocono Flats, and blockaded by school administration and security, Parker is waiting to break free. Readers anxiously want to see him graduate from high school, succeed with his photography, and move on to bigger and better things. He has unique, perhaps considered eccentric to some, qualities that make him memorable. His veganism is one example. He is a true protagonist. As for the other high school characters, they constitute a typical student population in schools across America. The seemingly cheerleader-type Taiwanese girl, the nerdy sidekick…are completely original characters but with classic relations to the main character. Katy is his crush and unique by her ethnicity; Bird is his best friend and unique by his braininess.

Parker’s constant nonchalance keeps the tone of the story amusing. I love the emphasis placed on the inefficacy of authority figures and Parker’s “here we go again” attitude in dealing with them. The physical appearances and actions of the Feds in the office are laughable. It is suggested that they are bothered by Parker’s presence, even afraid of him or aware of some uncanny presence about him. There is a clear suggestion that adults are not necessarily smarter or braver than kids. In the chapters to come, I am sure that Parker, the gently heroic young protagonist, proves this time and time again.

This excerpt, the opening two chapters, sets the stage for Parker’s counterculture journey. Just as he sees through his Zorki, readers see through him. Both amusing and informative, this story is sure to make a mark. I have no doubt that the casual tone, witty dialogue, and subtly inserted details are all continued throughout the rest of the novel. I am honestly so excited to read the remainder of this story once it comes out on bookstore shelves.” K.V., Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ

 

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“I‘m currently a high school senior in the United States. Lowenburg introduces memorable characters, such as the eccentric yet thoughtful Polachek, in the form of that “favorite-teacher” that everyone can relate to. All too often teens and young adults clash with authority with varying degrees of intensity. Whether it’s a full blown several-hundred-person protest rally, or a petition signed and submitted to some administration, young adults haven’t yet been calloused and filled with cynicism with regards to the world. We still embody that potential for change, for hope. It is this mindset, set in the familiar school setting, that makes the entire situation relatable. Combined with the fact that the the story’s authoritarian government seems to be pervading aspects of everyday civilian life makes the reader sit back and really take stock of the world around them, the world we take for granted every single day.
At least from the excerpt available here, the story seems to provide a strong foundation for a movie. There is a clearly presented conflict, and the story is clean and simple. It would not rely on any flashy gaudy special effects; rather the plot and characters would generate enough momentum to move the movie along themselves. It provides something to think about for all ages; those old enough to remember the Vietnam Drafts can think back and reminisce, and those who are perhaps a bit younger can smile as they remember the run in they had with the principal last week.
As a high school senior myself, it’s certainly nice to be able to view life through another high schooler’s perspective. And the high schooler in question, our protagonist here, is a fine model of the average student. He’s neither glamorous nor mysterious. He’s simple, with a conviction and an idea.
The conflict seen in this short excerpt definitely makes me want to see what happens next. Who will prevail, who will fail? These are questions I want answered. The fact that the characters are so relatable almost make the reader feel their own lives are in some way influenced by the outcome of the story as well.
The writing is tastefully done. Not too much, not too little. The characters are all developed according to their importance, and not a detail seems to be wasted or spared. The memorable characters, particularly Polachek, provide someone to rally behind, to cheer for. And when I’m cheering, I want to see whoever I’m cheering for win.” A.Y., Lehigh County, PA

 

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“As a high school student, I feel like I can relate to this story very easily. The characters are quirky and have interesting idiosyncrasies that made me smile. This story goes past typical young adult novels that involve petty high school problems, and it really makes an interesting story. Can’t wait to read the whole thing.
The characters are outstanding and as I was reading it, I found myself picturing the actors that would be good for Parker and Polachek. The story circumvents the typical movies that are available for young adults. Also, the witty banter is something that would be great in a movie.
Parker seems very multidimensional. He has some “nerdy” interests–he’s into politics and history–but then he’s also an accomplished athlete. Those are the kinds of characters that appeal to a wide audience because with all of those interests, you’re bound to relate to one of them.
The excerpt did what it was meant to do–it made me want to read more. The story progressed at a nice pace. I liked the internal dialogue because it really helped Parker’s character develop. My favorite part of the excerpt was that it had me chuckling at my computer screen. If a book can make me laugh, I’m sold!
I loved it, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing!”

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“I’ve been a Young Adult Librarian for nine years and have read a great deal of YA fiction. I think The Zorki Chronicles will resonate with teens for a number of reasons. First, the characters feel very real–teens can readily identify with them. Likewise, the situations are believable–the first day of class with an impressive teacher, getting into trouble and dealing with authority figures, crushing on the beautiful smart girl… The author describes everything in such a way that the reader can imagine these things were happening to him/herself or someone s/he knows. Even though the politics/social implications are different from our present reality, the story feels like it could be happening now. This is a well thought out “what if things were different” scenario that will especially strike a chord with teens who think and care about the society we live in. I think this will be an excellent book for discussion.”

M.A.L., Monroe County, PA

 

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“I am a high school athlete and I can understand how there are changes in how you feel about something. So it relates to all students — not just athletes — who are experiencing change and would like to try something else rather than just play a sport which they are known for…This would make a great novel and high school kids throughout the nation would love to read this, and I can’t wait to be able to read the rest of it.”C.M.

 

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“I think it makes the idea of school more interesting. As a high school student, myself, this puts a much more creative and interesting spin on every-day school life. I think all of the elements of this story would work very well as a movie. It is very appealing to an audience of young adults and also the teacher character, Polachek is incredibly interesting. I know I would want to have a teacher like Polachek. He seems really awesome and like he would be a great teacher. The main character, Miles, is also appealing because he shows the struggles and choices that many young teenagers face, while also showing the fact that he was a political opinion, which many young adults have, but feel they cannot voice. The story is very whimsical. It’s not dry and boring like many stories I read now — I could really get immersed in this. It’s great! I would definitely read the book.” Jamie

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“I am a Jr. in high school who plays baseball almost year round. In the story the main character is a senior in high school who is trying to get into college for something he really wants to be. This is very similar to a lot of the kids in high school today who want to be something later in life by doing well in school, like the main character.
Almost everything in this story would look good in a movie. One thing, especially, would be the whole teen athlete who isn’t doing a sport his senior year because he wants to focus on his academics. This might send a good message to younger kids who will maybe attempt to focus more on school rather then sports as a lot do now.
The characters’ names really stuck out to me and the back stories given with them are funny along with believable.  I think it would make for a great book. I am not one to read books, I feel like it is a huge waste of time. If this book were to be published I would most likely buy it just because the first two chapters were so good.”

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“I really like the storyline in this little preview. It kept me wondering. I like that it really details the characters personalities well…It was unique from any other story I’ve ever read and it kept me interested (which is unusual because I hate reading). I honestly want to know what happens next. I hope that this book will get published so I can buy it and figure out what happens. “ T.Z.

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“I am an author (“Crackpots,” “Lately”) and creative writing professor. “The Zorki Chronicles” is an unusual YA novel for a number of reasons, including:

1. It’s literary and well-written, with a structure that includes a story within a story, each in two different time periods. I would characterize it as Literary Satirical YA.

2. Its protagonist is male.

3. It addresses important contemporary socio-political-cultural issues (e.g., war, birth control, homelessness).

4. It teaches readers the value of creative outlets (Miles, the protagonist, is learning photography and is mentored by an art photographer.

5. It breaks away from the current trend of poorly written speculative adult fiction and is grounded in reality (which is surreal enough!)”

S.P., Morgantown, WV

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