Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

In this sequel to Truly Devious Stevie Bell finds her way back to Ellingham Academy thanks to the man she hates, Edward King.  Once there, she continues investigating the crime from the past as well as trying to figure out where Ellie went after she disappeared from a locked room at the end of the first book.  Some parts of the mystery are solved (the identity of the kidnapper/murderer from 1936!) while new questions are raised.

I read a sequel and I never read sequels.  Even more, now I'm going to have to read the third book since I've already invested this much time and brain power to it all.  However, I was not as blown away by this sequel as I was with the first book which had me rapidly turning pages.  In fact, I felt like the first third, at least, was sort of marking time without much happening at all since this has to be a trilogy.  Once the action actually started things moved along fairly well and I was highlighting clues right and left in order to try to solve the many mysteries.  And I DID solve the Ellingham case before it was officially revealed - yay me!  But...
1.  The "always on the staircase" riddle is NOT good, even when you know the solution to it.  Ellingham is supposed to be a master gamesman so he should've come up with something better than this.  And if this is the only clue he left behind as to the criminal's identity...?  I think he would be a lot more obvious than this.
2.  I am very tired of this romance pattern.  Either be together or don't be together but stop wasting my time with stories where they almost connect but then there's some misunderstanding.  And honestly, David knows what a creep his dad is so having him be outraged that Stevie is yet another person manipulated by him doesn't ring true.  Furthermore, why didn't Stevie just say "I wanted to come back here so I used him to make that happen."
3.  Vi.  This is a minor point in the overall story as Vi is nothing but a tertiary character, but the inclusion of Vi feels token and not like real representation.  We know from the first book that Vi is biologically female but prefers to use they/them as pronouns.  That's pretty much it.  Is Vi nonbinary?  Trans?  Just a girl who prefers to support others by using inclusive pronouns?  I have no idea because there is no other meaningful description of Vi in either book.  If the idea is to include some LGBTQ readers into the story, then I wish Johnson had done something more with this character so people could actually see themselves there.

I know I have more quibbles with it but that's all that's coming to mind at the moment.  Despite that, it still has me thinking and wondering how things will tie up when all's said and done.

Come November by Katrin van Dam

Rooney's mom is not worried that she just lost her job because November 17th is not that far away.  Mom is a member of the Next World Society and believes that the family will be taken away by aliens on November 17th to live on a planet that is not affected by climate change.  Rooney is not a believer and has no patience for her mother's beliefs, especially when Rooney's younger brother David seems to be getting on board with the Society's dogma and turning against Rooney.  At a loss for what else to do, Rooney turns to her long absent father.  She just wants some money to help in the short term but he offers other help after the prophesied day comes and goes and the group's charismatic leader disappears with all their money.

Who doesn't love a cult story filled with crazy people following an unscrupulous leader?  On those points, this book didn't disappoint.  Rooney's mom and the other Next World people are so frustrating in their beliefs and in the way Rooney is pushed to ascend with them on November 17.  And watching David slip away from her in his worry about being left behind is heartbreaking.  What's not so crazy about this cult is that the followers are green warriors, hoping to find a world where people actually care about their planet.  I can see how that would lure people in because the enormity of climate change is too much to face sometimes.  So some of the beliefs of this group didn't seem quite as wacko as your typical religious cult.  I think that's a super-smart and intriguing choice that van Dam made there.

But aside from the unusual cult, the rest of this book was not as intriguing.  I wasn't wrapped up in Rooney's day to day life and romance, which quickly faded into the background once they found each other.  In many ways things could've been covered more quickly to keep the pace up, but then the end of the book suddenly jumped ahead at light speed to give us a synopsis of what had been left out.  More consistent pacing would've benefited the overall story.

You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook

When Kim signed up for the educational trip to London it was so she could spend more time with her boyfriend. But now that he has dumped her and is dating another girl also going on the trip, Kim is miserable about the upcoming trip.  At the airport she meets Nicki and the two hit it off right away, spending a few hours together while waiting for their plane.  Nicki shares stories about her awful mother and Kim talks about her ex, Connor.  The two make lists of all the terrible things about the people they hate and Nicki tucks the lists away.  Kim falls asleep and when the plane lands, Nicki is nowhere to be seen although Kim does think she sees glimpses of Nicki as her group travels throughout London.  While the group is on the crowded Tube platform one day, Connor falls onto the tracks and dies after being hit by the train.  Was it a suicide or accident?  Kim can't imagine either one but then Nicki gets in contact with her saying that she took care of Kim's problem and now Kim owes her the death of Nicki's mom.  Armed with Kim's list of reasons she wants Connor dead, Nicki uses everything in her power to blackmail Kim into committing murder.

I knew this was a "Strangers on a Train" knock off and I was fine with that.  Especially since my students are completely unlikely to know what that is so it will all be new to them.  But I ended up so disappointed in the execution of this and with Kim in particular.  I know she has to make some dumb mistakes in order to keep the blackmail plot working, but she couldn't have been more passive in controlling her own fate, starting with keeping it a secret that she ever dated Connor.  That decision didn't make sense no matter how the author tried to explain it.  And then there was just the escalating series of dumb decisions the led to lying to the police over and over.  Again, I know some of this is necessary because if you go tell the police and they solve the crime, the story's over, but I cannot forgive how even in the very end Kim gets out of this situation with no action on her own part.  Again and again she gives herself the "work the problem" pep talk and tries to come up with a solution.  Each time I thought "Okay, NOW she's going to take the reins and turn the tables on Nicki!"  I was primed for some self-empowerment and excited to see Nicki falter when her easy mark turned out to be tougher than imagined.  But it never happened and I felt no relief for the end of the tension other than that I was finally done with the book.  It's okay that Kim has no backbone for the first half of the book because she has to get into a bad place, but please write her a way out of this that is of her own making with some clever thinking.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Just For Clicks by Kara McDowell

Claire and her twin sister Poppy are fashion vloggers on their way to becoming very famous.  They got their start thanks to their mom's very popular blog detailing their lives. Although they are the envy of teen girls everywhere, Claire doesn't love being in the spotlight and is looking forward to slipping away to college in about a year.  When she meets new guy Rafael she is excited to start a friendship with someone who doesn't seem to know her entire past.  Claire's plans for a normal life hit a stumbling block when the girls are offered their own reality TV show which is Poppy's dream.  And then even more pieces of her life come tumbling down when Claire discovers a devastating secret in her mom's private journals.

This book is mostly exactly what you'd think it would be both romance and story-wise except for all the stuff that is tackled and resolved quickly in the last few chapters.  Family fights and misunderstandings - check.  Possible romantic competition - check.  Sacrificing dreams due to unconditional love - check.  Getting over your attitude problem that is causing you to misread situations - check.  And more!  Of course I didn't go into this book looking for a downer so I wanted the happy ending to all of those stories, but maybe not so many stories and not so fast.  Claire's turnaround from disavowing her family to recognizing their worth happens in the blink of an eye and the thing that causes her to change her attitude is also revealed mighty fast.  I feel like that amount of crazy might not be revealed so quickly in real life. 

Despite those ending flaws, there are a few things I liked a lot about this book. 
1. Claire and Poppy's mom is sort of a stage mother but not in a bad way at all.  She totally cares about her daughters and it shows in how she treats them which is a great change from the portrayal of most parents in YA books.
2.  Rafael is a really nice guy and the romance progresses very slowly rather than with insta-love.  Most of their interactions in the book consist of them talking and asking questions of each other.  Like, actually getting to know each other! 
3.  The downside of being internet famous (probably famous in any way at all) is unflinchingly shown.  Of course it appears that these people have perfect lives but the online harassment and the work involved in maintaining that appearance is no joke.
4.  And speaking of work... It is made clear that you don't just get famous by writing a few entries and being discovered.  It's a fulltime job getting your name out there.  It's a good lesson for all those teens who are going to monetize their videos and get rich quick. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

When Clara decides to reenact "Carrie" at the school dance her nemesis Rose thinks Clara's pranks have gone too far. The girls get into a fight that also starts a fire in the school.  As punishment, and a way to pay for the damage they caused, the two girls are required to work on Clara's dad's food truck for the summer.  Even worse than being forced to sweat all day next to her enemy, Clara is missing out on a trip with her mother who is an influencer with access to the best party scenes.  Although neither girl wants to be there, Rose takes the job seriously and digs in.  Eventually even Clara begins to get on board, especially when cute boy Hamlet keeps showing up to flirt.

I relish the books that give me a break from all the heavy themes and mind-bending world-building in so many other things I read.  That said, not all "light" books are the kind of break I want because they can be too inane even for fluff.  The Way You Make Me Feel was precisely the type of fun book I love, but with diverse characters to boot.  Clara is very difficult to like at first with her prank that is not funny and her attitude toward pretty much everyone but Rose in particular.  Although Rose is also held to blame for the fight, I can understand why she was so upset with Clara and appreciate her willingness to take the job seriously.  Eventually, Clara comes around to appreciating both Rose and Hamlet and is a much better character with actual potential.  When she flees to be with her mom, it feels a little contrived given Clara's personality change.  But of course there had to be some way for her to see what she already had.  If you just want a somewhat light story with some heartwarming moments, give this a chance.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

When getting ready for school one day Carter is surprised to find a real English butler at his front door.  The butler tells the family that he has been willed to them by their paternal grandfather.  Although skeptical, they need his help right away when their car breaks and the butler takes them to school in his huge auto.  The butler eases the burden for everyone in the family, especially since Carter's dad is in the military and stationed overseas.  But the butler is also something of a pain because he expects the kids to do their homework and chores.  Additionally, he expects Carter to learn to play cricket and has soon managed to recruit an entire team and secure a field for practice.  

I am a big Gary Schmidt fan which is why I requested this book but I have always felt that his books have much more appeal for adults than teens.  Despite that, there have always been a few students who get into his work and are able to grasp some of the deeper themes in his writing.  I just don't see this being one of those books.  There is SO MUCH cricket! Why is there so much about a sport that will not be familiar to most Americans, teens in particular?  If the butler had just had Carter play it as part of the story that might've been okay, but a knowledge of the play by play is necessary to follow so many of the passages. Then there is the typical formal phrasing we usually get from Schmidt and the reveal of what is really happening with Dad which is supposed to be emotional but since I was not invested in the story or Carter's relationship with his dad, it all just fell very flat.  There are lots of books I read that I do not care for personally but that I can still sell to my students.  This is not a title I would even purchase for my library because I don't see any audience for it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

Zoey has to deal with too many other things in her life to be overly concerned about school.  She has to take care of three younger siblings while dealing with bullying at school because her clothes aren't clean most of the time.  Currently, her family doesn't have to worry about food or housing because they are living with her mom's boyfriend Lenny, although her mom does seem to be more distant than she used to be. When Zoey's teacher tells her to prepare for a debate by choosing an animal she thinks is the best, Zoey knows immediately that the octopus is her choice.  Although she forgets to bring in her homework, Zoey's teacher sees something in Zoey and strongarms her into joining the debate team, even though she doesn't participate much.  But as she listens to the techniques for discrediting your opponent, Zoey begins to see how those tactics are evident in her home life.

This is so wonderfully written with several passages that made me stop and think.  Although Zoey's family is food secure at the moment, they are still fairly poor and Braden illustrates the disparity between her life and that of her classmates in such a quiet, but powerful, way.  The one passage that really stood out to me was Zoey watching a boy leave his house with a smoothie that his mother pressed into his hand at the last minute.

I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I'm tired in the morning.  As if she wasn't exhausted.  As if she didn't have to take care of Hector.  As if Frank wouldn't throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender.  As if we had a working blender.  As if we had bananas.  As if.

Wow.  The way she lays out all of Zoey's problems in one paragraph, narrowing it down to something as simple as just having a banana available says so much more than a sentence talking about all the things that have to balanced to keep her life running somewhat smoothly.  Although Zoey talks about her life being more stable than she has known in the past, it's clear that things are precarious.

Being poor is a big part of Zoey's life but that is only part of the picture.  She also has too many parenting responsibilities, bullying at school, and an absentee mother with a new boyfriend. There are so many threads with which my students will relate.  The ending is too neat but with all the worry throughout the story, I am pleased to see hope there, even if it's more than is probably realistic.