Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love à la Mode by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Rosie and Henry meet on the plane taking them to study at a prestigious culinary program in Paris.  They have an immediate spark and it seems like they might have begun a relationship when they kiss a few weeks later, but then a series of complications gets in the way.  Henry want to be a chef more than anything but his mother is pushing him to keep his options open for college or another career.  In order to "help" him think about other opportunities, she talks with his teachers and asks them to assign him extra work.  Now he is stressed out with his nonstop schedule and the pressure of trying to keep his grades high enough to satisfy his mom.  Rosie, meanwhile, wants to be a pastry chef and makes the best cakes, breads and desserts ever.  Unfortunately, she is not as great at all the other cooking and is worried she will be asked to leave the school if she doesn't measure up.  Throw into the mix the hot son of a celebrity chef to further complicate things for Rosie and Henry.

As I expected, this is a light romance following typical romance conventions.  Even so, it is very frustrating to me that the couple can't get together sooner because they won't just TALK to each other!  If Henry had just told Rosie about the pressure he's receiving from his mom she wouldn't have to wonder why he seems to be avoiding her, and so on.  But putting that aside, I liked all the characters and the group of supportive friends surrounding our two main people.  I was happy that hot boy Bodie wasn't a bad guy either, especially because I was sure he had somehow sabotaged Rosie's cheesecake.  The only caveat I would include about this book is that while I really enjoyed the cooking atmosphere and liberal references to real life chefs, terminology, and TV shows, I don't know that will work for every reader.  Perhaps the Parisian love affair will help overcome any issues for those who are not Chopped or Top Chef viewers.  I know I felt the romance of the city as Strohm wove it into the storyline.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Writing a pithy summary of this book feels impossible as it is actually a set of short stories with one connecting factor that adds interest to the stories but isn't required for most of them to be complete.  This sci fi book has six stories, the first of which begins somewhat in the future and then each subsequent story takes place a little further along than that.  Each story shows the progression of genetic manipulation as humans change themselves more and more, eventually ending up with things such as wings, large heads and skin in an array of colors by the last story.  As you might imagine, this is not a book celebrating all those advances...

If you had asked me when I was about 50% through the book I would've said that I wasn't sure if I liked it or not but by the end of it all I really loved it in its entirety.  Although I love sci fi in theory, it is sometimes hard for me to get going on a story because there is the new world which I have to figure out and wrap my head around.  Since there are six stories, I had to figure out six different worlds as the Earth had changed considerably between each new story.  Once I got the rules for each story figured out, I could relax and enjoy what was happening and each one was a great example of the best of sci fi - setting up a future that tells a good tale while still leaving lots of room for your own speculation.  By the time I was into the sixth story and figured out where the entire arc of the book was going, my last wall of skepticism melted and my mind was happily playing back what had gotten us to this point while appreciating how extremely clever Dayton was to make it seem like I was reading six different stories as she was actually leading me along one path the entire time!  I was already content with my book-reading experience but then I read the author's note with the pictorial representation of her inspiration and that was the cherry on top.

Although I basically dismissed the one obvious connecting factor in the stories - the Reverend Tad Tadd - I do love the additional story of his growth from a personal minister to a religion in and of himself.  Other than the one story in which he is a major character, he is thrown in as a mere mention in most of the others.  And yet Dayton has crafted the mentions so well that I can see his fanaticism and that of his followers along with the corruption of his message as it fits his own desires and those of so much of the rest of America.  (Or is that my own bias coming to bear?)

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

As a new school year begins, Emma is still struggling with the suicide of her best friend at the end of the previous year.  She saw no signs that Ollie was depressed and carries guilt about things she didn't say during the last few weeks of his life.  Emma's school prides itself on inclusiveness so it is not a surprise that their headmaster has invited six clones to attend their private academy.  The six are clones of other students who already attend the school but were cloned without the knowledge or consent of their parents.  Emma's world is rocked when she sees that Oliver was cloned and that now she will be seeing his face every day on Levi.  The two clash immediately but soon Emma finds herself relying on Levi to help her after her roommate Pru is viciously attacked, nearly dying.  As anti-clone sentiment grows at school and in the country as a whole, Emma learns more about the Similars and their special abilities but the mystery of what is happening behind the scenes at the academy grows bigger every day.

I did NOT see that last twist coming!  That is something you hardly ever hear me say.  Most books I have figured out the twist well before I've gotten there or I at least have a pretty good guess I'm waiting to confirm.  When this one was revealed I was truly surprised and it hadn't occurred to me at all so that was very exciting!  Despite that, the book overall was fine for me, but not great.  Emma and Levi's relationship arc was the same as any other doomed lover affair - hate, forced together, discover the other is not so bad after all, get close, obstacle to love with one of them misunderstanding what's happening and the other not explaining, resolution of the obstacle, deepest love story every told, self-sacrifice.  Yawning as I type.  It was not a bad love story, just nothing new happening there to capture my attention.  As for the rest of the plot...

It kept me turning pages quickly to see if there was some answer to the many, many questions:
What are the Similars missions?
What are their special abilities?
Why do they have special abilities?  Are they NOT human?
Why is the school allowing the anti-clone protests when they preach open-mindedness?
What does Oliver's last message to Emma mean?
What does the message in the book from Pru's father mean?
Why is Emma's father so distant from her?
Is Pru dead?
Do The Ten do anything meaningful or do they just meet at midnight to haze and harass each other?  
Why would the principal allow Emma to just leave the lab after what she saw?  And why isn't Emma terrified for her life after that weird encounter?!
And more, not all of which are answered in this book. It was all a little too much without enough closure on all points.  Despite Emma apparently being extremely smart since she placed in "the Ten", she doesn't seem particularly adept at figuring much out.  Like I said, I was reading quickly because I was caught up in the story despite the flaws I kept finding.

Finally, there were just too many characters to keep track of once all the parents became involved.  I'm not sure how to fix that since the past is relevant to the present, but something needs to be done so that I can tell who has grudges from the past and which parents are supposed to hate each other now.  At least give some names that stand out or just call the parents Mr. So and So, Mrs. So and So.  But Jago and Jaeger?  And then the dinner on parents' weekend - Lord help me!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston

Ana and Di were taken aboard a pirate spaceship several years ago when they were adrift in an escape pod.  Ana doesn't remember anything about her life before arriving on the ship but she has been trained to be great at what she does.  Di is her closest friend but he has been glitching because his memory core is damaged but Ana is hopeful they will be able to restore him if she can get the coordinates to a mysterious ship.  Unfortunately, someone else buys them just before she has a chance but she is so determined to fix Di that they chase the buyer down and become entangled in an interstellar adventure with killer robots, romance, evil rulers, and a prophesized return of the Goddess.

I did not enter this book in the best frame of mind having been "forced" to read it after I was fairly determined to ignore it.  As such, I found the beginning a little confusing and cliched with the daredevil pilot and the plucky, clever girl who throws caution to the wind.  But once I got over my attitude and settled into this world, I found myself liking it quite a bit even as I tried to resist.  Luckily, the "secret" of who Ana really is, is revealed officially about halfway into the book rather then springing it on the reader at the end as if we don't already know.  That allowed the plot to really get down to the mystery of what happened years before without forcing the author to write mysterious sentences that didn't reveal anything.  Ana's pirate family is great and supportive, reminding me of the crew of the Firefly or the Scooby Gang in Buffy.  And if you knew what a Buffy fan I am, you'd understand how high that praise is. 

Ana's relationship with Di was less interesting to me just because I found the hesitating over their feelings - and whether Di even had feelings since he is a robot/android - typical and boring.  I also had some problems with their age difference since Di is fully formed and, I assume, was basically an adult right from the moment of his creation. Therefore, he was grown up when they went into the escape pod and Ana was still a child.  So for them to now form a romantic attachment is a little weird.  However, that is one of those mind-boggling conundrums like when you try to figure out time-travel movies because does a robot actually age?  Does my perception of what's an appropriate relationship between a human and an android even apply?  With that issue aside, I will say that it was pretty convenient that the crew just happened to find a more humanoid robot to download Di into.  Speaking of relationships, the bonding of Jax and Robb was too fast for my taste in terms of what they knew about each other (nothing) to become so close.  But I liked both of them and aside from the speediness of their relationship building, I liked watching them come together.

As I approached the end of the book I lost some of my enthusiasm because it was a little longer than I felt it needed to be.  I think the book overall could lose 50 to 100 pages and it would be better for that to keep the action moving and tighter than it is.  Otherwise, it is just a good example of straight up rollicking sci fi.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

One summer, five unlikely friends gathered around a box in the forest and put in items to cement their friendship.  Now, four years later, the group is drawn back together when they begin experiencing horrors related to the items they put into the box.  Sep is the loner of the group and is just marking time until he can get off the island where he has lived all his life and go to the mainland on a scholarship.  He is skeptical when his former friends approach him but it soon becomes clear that someone broke the rules of the sacrifice box and now they are being targeted in the order in which they made their sacrifices.  As they work to close the box again, it becomes clear that they were not the first group of friends in town to be drawn to the box and that this time the box might not be satisfied until it gets a much bigger sacrifice.

Eh.  I picked this ARC because it sounded exactly like the kind of book my students would love to read.  It probably is going to be fairly popular at my school, but it wasn't as compelling as I expected.  For one thing, the kids were slow at getting back to the box to shut it up!  They were being chased by hordes of undead animals but still took the time to load up a wounded stag and take it to the veterinarian, then later they went back to the vet to warn him that there are some weird things happening.  Dudes, just go do the box thing!  And speaking of the vet, our first introduction to him was him saying that he killed animals and that when he looks at a puppy he knows he will be killing it someday. I guess he was speaking like that because he was not a native English speaker...?  But it was harsh and really turned me off to him and to the book overall.  Finally, the writing - particularly in the first few chapters - was much too overblown with some really overworked metaphors.   I can sell this easily with a short booktalk but I know some kids will put it down before we get to the murderous teddy bear.

Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now by Dana L. Davis

Tiffany is headed to California to live with the father she has never met nor even knew existed until shortly before her mother died.  As if that weren't enough of a change, when she arrives she finds out that she has four half sisters and a white stepmother.  Tiffany's new family has some strict rules governing her behavior, starting with her father's belief that his girls should not wear any weaves or braids, only their natural hair.  That will be a problem for Tiffany since she has alopecia - hair loss - thanks to the stress of watching her mother die of cancer.  Luckily, she gets some help from the woman across the street who is also a hairdresser as well as the mother of the weird kid who wears white make up all the time.  Tiffany's life has changed dramatically in all kinds of ways, but there could still be one more shock - this might not be her family at all!  Shortly before she left Chicago another man showed up on her doorstep claiming to be her father as well and asking for a DNA test.  Time is running out and no one knows the secret.

I just thoroughly enjoyed this book despite a few flaws.  Tiffany is so secure in who she is (despite her crippling anxiety) that I loved watching her interactions with everyone around her.  She is a good girl but she's not afraid to stand up to the jerk at school and her dad who is also a jerk for a good portion of the book with his crazy, controlling rules.  But she's working hard to fit in with her new family and supportive of her stepmother as she also tries to deal with her controlled life.  I really liked Tiffany's representation as an atheist which is something I don't remember seeing in most/any other YA books I've read.  And although that is contrasted with the Jehovah's Witness religion of her family, I didn't feel like their religion was being criticized or shown to be bad in any way.  

As I said, there are flaws in the story:
Given how strict he is for most of the book, his transformation to trying to be a decent guy is pretty quick.  Particularly his reaction to Tiffany's sister and her situation.
The depiction of the youngest sister who is autistic bothered me in that the family seemed pretty clueless on how to deal with her.  Of course Dad doesn't because that's his character, but even Tiffany's stepmom apparently hasn't done some basic research on how to handle an autistic toddler.
There are A LOT of story threads and several of them are left somewhat open.

I ruminated on these problems and a few others and felt like maybe I should like the book less or take away a star in my rating but I still just liked the whole thing.  So I ignored that feeling!  I think it's a great title to sell to my 8th graders in particular who will appreciate the great heroine, the drama of the story, the "villain", and a book with a black character who does not live in the ghetto.

Camp Valor by Scott McEwen, Hof Williams

Wyatt has landed in prison facing serious time after he is framed for a crime committed by his friend.  When a man named Hallsy shows up and offers him a chance to leave the jail and wipe his record clean, Wyatt takes it.  He is taken to a top secret summer camp where he will be trained to become an elite military operative along with many other children and teens.  Assuming, that is, that he doesn't quit first.  The people who make it through the exhausting training at Camp Valor are sent to infiltrate situations that would impossible for adults.  In fact, in 1984 a Camp Valor graduate killed a central American despot by befriending his son.  Unfortunately, that son turned his father's death into a reason to track down his killer and has become one of the most powerful underground figures on the Dark Web.  Now his revenge mission and Wyatt's training are about to collide.

Somewhere I read something about this book that made me excited to read it before it was published.  Then last week I was on vacation and ran out of things to read when I found a copy at the local bookstore.  I tore into it excitedly and was quite absorbed for awhile, thinking about how much my students would really like the military and action aspects of it as we see Wyatt enduring the brutal training.  Then, it began its slow, horrible descent into graphic, disgusting violence.  The book tells parallel stories until they intersect in the last few chapters.  I had no problems with Wyatt's timeline of training at Camp Valor (except for the romance which felt forced and added in just to be a plot point that led to another big event) even though if I think about it I guess it's pretty odd to have 11 year olds with stuffed animals defusing bombs and learning weaponry.  But it's an adventure book and she was a secondary character so I didn't dwell on that.  The main thing I DID dwell on in Wyatt's training storyline was the pill you had to take to wipe your memories if you tapped out - surely you had to take a different pill if you quit during Hell week as opposed to those who gave up in the first day?  Just my own internal musings about the logistics of the memory wipe pill...  Even though the teens at Camp Valor are learning to use all sorts of weapons, their scenes were not graphic or inappropriate for students.

No, the problem I had was with the other story of the Glowworm, the disgusting creature who used to be the despot's son.  Even the description of his appearance and smell is pretty bad but that's nothing compared to his eating habits - completely gratuitous - and violence with those who disappoint him.  In addition, there is his right hand assassin, Raquel, who attracts the Glowworm's attention when she kills some tourists because they photographed her eating her meal.  When the two plot lines finally match up then the violence and killings ratchet up as well.  The imagery in this book was so graphic and disturbing that I had to put it down one night before bed because it was making me uneasy in my own home.  Aside from the violence, I take issue with the way the Camp Valor team handled their mission with Raquel and the Glowworm.  It felt like a couple members of the team basically ignored all their training and protocols which led to a lot of death and injury.

I don't remember ever doing this with any other book I've purchased for my collection, but I'll be passing this one on to a high school rather than keeping it on my shelves.