Thursday, June 7, 2018

Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Lauren is mad at her parents who sent her beloved brother to a boarding school for autistic students because she believes she could help Ryan out more at home.   She's also starting to feel estranged from her best friend who doesn't seem to get how upset Lauren is.  To top it off, one of the tenets of her Quaker school is simplicity and Lauren is suddenly aware of how much money her parents and friends throw around without a second thought. When Sierra moves in next door she and Lauren become fast friends.  Sierra is living with Lauren's neighbors because he own mother is an alcoholic who has been arrested and is trying to get sober.  Sierra is used to being a caretaker so when Lauren comes to her with a Robin Hood-like plan to raise money to help autistic kids, Sierra agrees to help.  But Lauren's behavior continues to grow and soon has Sierra worried and trying to keep their situation under control.

Every Shiny Thing is told in an alternating point of view format.  Lauren's chapters are narratives while Sierra's are free verse which makes the book read fairly fast.  I also read through it quickly because I was caught up in the story.  Both girls are good characters even though Lauren is quite flawed.  Even when she believes she is doing good, she isn't.  She is coming from a privileged life and is completely blind to her privilege when it comes to what she says and how she justifies her actions.  She's also a self-righteous teen who believes she sees things more clearly than others.  Just like all of us did when we were teens who couldn't believe how stupid everyone else in the world was or why we were the only people who felt so deeply.  But despite her many flaws, it is easy to feel for Lauren and to see why she is slipping down the slope into true kleptomania.  

While both girls are well drawn, Sierra's story is the one that really resonated with me.  Sierra is the perfect depiction of an enabler and caretaker for people with addictions.  And yet she is not labeled as such - we're just shown that life.  I could feel her unease grow throughout the book while she tried to keep the peace with everyone.  I know that one or both of these authors must be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic to capture that thought process so expertly and the huge, but quiet, toll it takes on a child. 

There are many themes to think about in this book and I would like to hand it to my students who need it. But I believe it will also appeal to those who are just looking for a good story of friendship and bad choices.

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Boy is a street urchin who stays alive picking pockets while trying to keep away from the head of the local gang.  Boy is caught during an auction for a menagerie of exotic animals left behind after their keeper's death.  From his high perch where he is awaiting his punishment, he helps Mr. Jameson place the winning bid for an elephant named Maharajah and in gratitude, Jameson hires Boy on the spot and gives him the name Danny.  After Maharajah destroys his train carriage it is decided that Danny and the elephant will walk the 200 miles to Mr. Jameson's zoo with Danny disguised as Indian prince Dandip.  What's more, Jameson makes a bet with another menagerie owner that Danny and the elephant can make the trip in just one week and if he loses, the consequences for both will be dire.

I'm always drawn to stories with animals as well as people who have special connections with those animals so I was looking forward to starting this book.  It read younger than I was anticipating but I'm not feeling like it's going to grab my sixth graders' attention despite the adventures throughout the book.  I struggle with main characters who don't talk because that places quite a burden on the writer to keep my interest when that character can't really interact with the rest of the characters.  I have yet to read a book or see a show with a mute character where the writer was entirely up to that challenge.  Except for the episode "Hush" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Everyone should take notes from that.  And nearly all episodes of Buffy, for that matter.  But back to my point, it is frustrating to see situations arise that could be easily resolved if the character would just say a couple of words.  I do love Maharajah and Mr. Jameson's joie de vivre but the book overall was merely okay for me.

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Sara's best friend disappeared one day just like many other young women in Mexico.  Now working as an investigative reporter, Sara has been trying to find her friend as well as all the other girls who have gone missing.  When she receives a threat against herself and her family, as well as a clue as to where the girls might be, Sara knows her time is running out and that someone she trusts is actually working against her. 

Meanwhile, Sara's brother Emiliano is trying to make enough money to buy a motorcycle and open a store where he can sell the folk arts created by friends so he can make a better life for himself and his family.  He's also trying to make enough money to impress Perla Rubi, the girl he likes who comes from a rich family.  Emiliano is offered an opportunity to go into business with a powerful man it might be the answer to his problems, but it could also be an offer that causes him to forsake his ideals.

For a book with so many ethical questions and mortal danger this story should've been much more compelling. I was never on the edge of my seat about either sibling's story nor torn apart by the impossible situations in which they found themselves. IRL I have very strong opinions about the building of the dumbass wall (did I give my feelings away?) and my belief that maybe we ought to concentrate instead on making life in Mexico more bearable for its citizens. So you would think that I'd be highly invested in this book that tackles quite a few of those problems. Instead, something about the writing came across as more clinical to me.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

Ellie wasn't at her school the day of the tornado outbreak.  She left after a big fight with her boyfriend, Noah, and was in the lighthouse when the storm started.  From there she saw the massive tornadoes destroy most of her town and she saw the explosion when a gas truck fell from the sky onto her school, killing Noah and her three best friends.  After the storm the entire town is grieving and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.  Ellie keeps telling her parents that she's "fine" but she begins to question that when she starts seeing her next door neighbor - one of the kids killed at school -  playing basketball in his yard.  When Ellie talks to him and records him telling his story, she finds that she can help free the souls of the dead who are now appearing to many others in town. 

I finished this book yesterday and have been mulling it over, trying to make a decision about what I think the main theme is, a way to sum up my feelings about it, and how to put into words all the things it is.  What I have decided is that The Gone Away Place is too many things for me to put one word on it because the scope of emotions and thoughts in the book is awesome.  However, the closest I can come to summing up the book for me is the word "grief".  People think they know what grief means but that is too small a word and too easily dismissed to encompass all the subtleties Barzak infuses his story.  Both my parents have died so I know some things about grieving but I couldn't have listed all the components of grief if asked.  As I read the book and have continued to reflect on it, I realize that there are so many parts that contribute to the aching feeling of grief and they are included in The Gone Away Place.  Here are some of the threads wound up in this book:

Several of the ghosts are longing for the future they will not have now.  They tell Ellie about their plans - reconnecting with a brother, getting out from a sibling's shadow, beginning college.  All of them delayed their own happiness because they knew they would soon be able to begin the lives of which they dreamed but now that opportunity is gone and I could feel the loss in reading their stories.  When someone we love dies, all of our future dreams with that person die with them.  It's not just the person themselves we are missing, it's the experiences we were going to have with them as well. 

Regret is such a huge part of grieving.   There will always be something you wish you had done differently with a loved one after they've died.  For Ellie, her last conversation with Noah is haunting her and, since she has seen several ghosts but not him, she appears to have real evidence that he is holding that against her.  Tied in with that is the idea that death puts things into perspective and
 makes us re-evaluate our priorities.  Ellie now sees that her problem with Noah was not a big deal in the big picture.

Preserving someone's story is important.  Once someone is gone, their story dies with them.  Ellie finds that capturing those stories is the key to helping a ghost move on.  Even her best friends tell her parts of their lives Ellie didn't know about.  Remembering someone's story - things they did and what they thought - is their legacy so capture those memories while you can. 

And on the theme of personal stories... Ellie's counselor talks about the disruption in Ellie's story and how she needs to find a way to continue it, possibly in a new direction.  That was such a great visual for how your life begins to mend itself after a death that I stopped to let it sink in and then, to see if I could analyze what changes I'd made in the direction of my life.  How often does a book cause me to stop reading and just let its message settle into me?  Powerful!

Finally, there is hope.  Ellie is given such a gift in that she has the chance to talk to her friends again before they move on.  I haven't had that kind of encounter with a dead loved one, but I can still identify with the feeling of hope those meetings in the book gave me.  Because as bad as grieving is, there are also so many moments when you see something or hear a piece of music or remember something about that person that makes you smile and makes your heart fill with love and happiness that you had that person in your life in the first place.  Ellie talking with her friends brought those warm feelings to me while reading the book and it felt completely at home as a part of the grief.

The Gone Away Place is a deep story that presents itself almost as an adventure or horror novel - tornadoes! angry ghosts!  Take time to read it and really experience the full range of what it has to offer.

Also - holy crap, is that cover terrifyingly beautiful!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island by Loree Griffin Burns

I <3 Iceland SO MUCH so of course I had to read this book as soon as it arrived in my library!  And I usually love nonfiction because there is so much to learn about the world so, bonus.  This book did not disappoint on either count.  I was fascinated to learn about how life begins to form on a big ole rock in the ocean.  How do plants grow?  Where do insects come from?  Well, not all of that was explained in exact detail but the details that are included are great and left me with a brain full of further questions to ponder.  The explanation of how entomologist Erling studies Surtsey's insects is clear and captivating.  And I love the slight diversions into Icelandic names and some customs which made the book more cozy and not all hardcore science.  My only issue is that now I want to know about the birds and plants on Surtsey and how those have been growing in the past 50 years so I need at least one sequel.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal loves school and dreams of becoming a teacher when she grows up. She has to put her education on hold for several weeks after her mother has a hard time recovering after giving birth.  Amal takes over the running of the household while trying to keep up with her studies.  One day at the market she has a run-in with the village landlord, a man known for his vile temper and crooked business practices.  As punishment, all her father's debts are called in and Amal is forced to go work as an indentured servant in Khan's house until she has worked off the family bill.  

There is so much hype about this book and I've read so many tweets from people talking about how meaningful it is to them that I definitely went into it with huge expectations.  With that lead-in it is probably not surprising to hear that I was not as impressed as everyone else seems to be.  Amal's story is good and full of many opportunities for us to be SO grateful for life in the West  (assuming that's where you live) where education is a right, not an option.  I'm sure my students couldn't possibly imagine a world where one fight with someone over a piece of fruit could lead to you sacrificing your entire future.  For all those reasons, I like this book.  Where it fell short for me was in the actual writing which is not bad, but not gripping, either.  I should have been on the edge of my seat what with the police showing up and the revelations about Amal's new life and the betrayals from others, but I wasn't.  And the ending was happy but much too neat - a point that the author makes herself when she writes that for most people in Amal's situation there is no easy out. 

Damselfly by Chandra Prasad

On their way to a competition the plane carrying all the members of a high school fencing team crashes on an island.  Samantha survives the crash and finds that several of her teammates did as well, including her best friend Mel and the most popular girl in school.  At first the teens are just trying to make it until they are rescued. But as days pass it becomes clear that any rescue could be a long ways off so they need to learn to survive indefinitely.  Even with all the dangers of their new home hanging over them, old cliques surface and threaten their society.  The group is also being menaced by an unknown island resident who wants the teens gone.

For a book with survival, a threatening island-savvy stranger, high school mean girls, someone slowly losing their mind, increasing violence, and racism, this book didn't do much for me.  Samantha was so wishy-washy that I never bonded with her nor understood why Mel would choose her as a best friend when Mel was such an interesting person.  I know we're supposed to think poorly of the popular girl and her minions but honestly, Samantha was one of them.  I just couldn't get wrapped up in the story, not even the horror "here's what people are really like on a base level" aspect.