Friday, March 23, 2018

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Camellia is excited that she is finally part of the group being sent to the palace to take over Belle duties.   In Orleans, everyone other than a Belle is born with grey skin and red eyes.  The Belles have the special abilities and talents to alter a person's appearance in any way to make him or her beautiful.  During the upcoming ceremony, one of the Belles will be chosen as the Favorite.  Camellia is so sure she will be the Favorite that it is a huge shock when her closest friend is chosen instead. Camellia is sent to a nearby teahouse where she learns that the life of a Belle is not as glamorous as she had imagined and that there are some secrets being kept from her.  She is further surprised when she receives an invitation to come back to the palace and finds out she is replacing Amber as the Favorite.  No one can give her an explanation of what happened to her friend but the more time she spends with the princess, the more she begins to suspect that something nefarious has taken place.  And when the queen makes a proposal to her, Camellia finds herself stuck in a dangerous position.

I have really been dragging my feet on getting this review written mostly because I had such high expectations for it but ended up being quite disappointed.  I'll start with the few things I liked.
  • The setting is lush and so easily visualized thanks to the descriptive language.
  • The premise is unique
  • The references to several fairy/folk tales made me feel like I was really clever when I connected the dots and figured out the subtext.
  • I found myself imagining what it would be like to be able to alter your appearance so radically fairly easily (although painfully, apparently).
  • The deeper subtexts of the desire for beauty at all costs AND the enslavement of people and their differing stations depending on how useful they are to the people in charge.
Now on to the issues I have with The Belles.
  • Yes, the language is descriptive but it was overly so for me and began to feel like padding.  I found it over the top and then, annoying.
  • I could not get invested in any of the characters.  Camellia was not a great friend to Amber and she was not all the swift when it came to figuring out what was happening in the palace nor in making a decision about her course of action.  I wanted a stronger protagonist, someone I could root for.  Whatever sort of feeling I was having for her was then permanently squashed when she and Amber used their Belle powers in a competition with disastrous results.  I think I was supposed to be mad at the person who set up this situation, but Camellia knew the score by then and still played along.  But then was shocked by the results.
  • The villain was too much for me for too long.  Her sadism was clearly illustrated  and then it was shown again with another horrible scene.  And then another.  I get it already.  It reminded me of Ramses Bolton on Game of Thrones and Ramses was the character that almost made me stop watching because I didn't need to see more horrors to understand that he's a bad dude.  
  • The plot "twists" were not so twisty for me, especially the revelation at the end about the elder princess.  That just made me angry that no one had ever thought to check on that before because, come on!!
So, overall, a book I couldn't wait to get but that turned out to be a disappointment for me.  That's always a sad turn of events.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Jensen has big plans for his future.  He wants to be an astronaut and has already begun researching sunspots, something that makes everyone around him roll their eyes.  In his daydreams Jensen is the hero of every situation and he is happily unaware that his real life is not as great.  His "friends" call him names and say rude things to him.  But they're just joking, right?  It's not until Jensen gets involved with the newspaper crew who wants to interview him for a project on bullying that he even realizes he is a victim of some of that behavior.  

This book grew on my slowly as Chmakova  pulled me into a light story about a daydreaming boy and then sneakily turned it into a strong message book about bullying.  Jensen is a winning character, kinda clueless about life as many new middle schoolers are, with a perception of himself that does not match his reality (like A LOT of people).  His realization that he is being bullied is great, particularly because the questionnaire that helps him see this deals with the considerably less obvious forms of bullying, not just physical bullying.  As he looks around with new eyes, he also becomes more aware of how others are being excluded and takes it upon himself to do what he can to make a difference.  The "brick by brick" analogy is so powerful and hopeful and completely won me over.  I'm sure that's partly because I, myself, feel that some problems we are facing are just too big and I have no impact on changing them.  It's a good affirmation to remind readers that all our actions together can make a difference a little at a time.  And it's also one of the few books around that offers some solutions to bullying, not just calling out the behavior.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

On the day Elena finally manages to get up the courage to talk to the girl she has had a crush on, that girl is shot right in front of her.  Elena has always heard voices from inanimate objects so when the Starbucks logo tells her to heal Freddie's gunshot wound, Elena does.  Freddie heals as if she had never been shot and then her killer disappears in a flash of light.  Very few people believe Elena but this is not her first miracle.  In fact, she is already somewhat famous because she is the product of a virgin birth.  It turns out there is a scientific explanation for this, but it is still a miracle.  After the healing Elena hears from several other objects all of which tell her she is the key to saving humans from some unnamed problem and that she is to heal as many people as possible.  The issue is that every time she heals one person, lots of others are "raptured" away, leaving behind devastated friends and families.  She has also attracted the attention of the local police and some secretive government agents.  With the help of her best friend, her former boyfriend, and Freddie, Elena is struggling to figure out what she should do.

I really loved the beginning of this book with the healing and promise of some huge religious or philosophical revelation.  I am gaga about how Elena has a crush on a girl and has an ex-boyfriend and yet there is not a passage talking about her sexuality (until much later in the book in a flashback), she just likes who she likes.  In addition, her friend Fadil is great and I was really enjoying their relationship, his devotion to his religion, and his unconditional support of Elena.  So things were going great!  

And then, things just kinda petered out.  Elena asked for answers from the voices but they did not offer her any explanations.  She discussed her options and problems with various people but didn't form any concrete plan of action and I got tired of watching her just react to the latest thing.  I was particularly unhappy with the quick fade of Fadil from the story as Elena became more involved with Freddie.  The book was just long without much action for a huge chunk of time which I feel is an issue for so many authors - great idea for a premise and then seeming to go not much of anywhere. We are left with unanswered questions about the government agents and really, what, exactly, is happening that necessitated the healing and rapturing in the first place?  Elena finds some solution but I don't feel like there was enough groundwork laid to help us (or me, anyway) understand why people would take the option that was offered.  It feels like there was meant to be a deep message about human weariness or faith but it didn't end up being made clear.

Finally - and this is smallish in terms of the overall story, but it mattered to me - my praise of how a bisexual character was so naturally included in the story was tempered by a later passages/events.  While discussing some classmates the two girls identify one boy Freddie used to like who is now transitioning.  A discussion with another character at another time leads to the revelation that he is questioning and might be asexual.  There are other minor LGBTQ "characters" - I use quotes because we don't actually know most of these people, they are just mentioned in passing.  I'm all for representation but not in a laundry list.  Then it just stands out in a "some of my best friends are not straight" way.  Definitely pulled me out of the story as it was not naturally integrated the way Elena's sexuality was.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey

Shane and his best friend Josh love baseball and their team has a chance to win a tournament this year.  Unfortunately for his team, Shane has to go visit his dad on the same weekend of an important game so he won't be able to help his team win.  Although he doesn't want to let his team down, Shane is excited about his visit back to his former town because he will be seeing his doctor and might be able to begin having testosterone shots to help with his transition.  No one in Shane's new school knows that he was born biologically female but he is still nervous about someone finding out.  What's more, other boys his age are starting to grow hair and are becoming more muscular and Shane doesn't want to be left behind his peers.  But his dreams of beginning the shots are dashed when his dad, who isn't entirely comfortable with this decision, doesn't give his permission.  Back at home, Shane lets slip the name of his former school and the bully who has been harassing him finds a picture of Shane as a girl.  Now he is struggling with his identity again as well as wondering how his friends and girlfriend will react.  

I knew that Shane was a trans boy before beginning the book but I wish I hadn't had that knowledge.  One of the things I liked the best about this is that Hennessey just drops you into Shane's typical middle school boy life - sports, friend, graphic novels, beginnings of romance with a cute girl, bullying - without a word about his biological sex.  When I book talk this to my students, I totally want to find a hook other than his gender because I want my kids to be sucked into Shane's life as a completely "normal" boy before they can bring all their assumptions to bear.  There are a lot of things I like about this book including:
1.  His dad is not all okay with everything right away.  I've said this about several other books with transgendered or gay characters - your loved ones don't always just get it right away.  And even if they're supportive in general, they're gonna make some mistakes and say some stupid things.  It's okay that his dad is struggling to get there as long as he is still working on it.
2.  Because no one at school knows about his past, Shane has kinda convinced himself that he's fine and doesn't need a support group.  But it turns out he's not as all together as he thinks, especially after he is outed at school.  Coming out is a lifetime process as is self-acceptance.
3.  Some people he knows are okay with his revelation and some are not.  Always gonna be that way.  And just like his dad, some of them are supportive but don't really know exactly what to say or how to be supportive without also being awkward.  
4.  There is a little bit of romance - which is typical for a 12 year old boy - but the focus of the book is on Shane's identity in general, not his sexuality.  Sex and orientation are not the same thing but not a lot of people get that.  The other great thing about this point is that when parents come after this book, and some of them will, they won't be able to say that it is inappropriate because middle schoolers don't need to be reading about sex.  The only grounds for objecting to this book is your own personal bigotry and you're basically going to have to expose that in your book challenge.  They'll come up with some other reasons, but that's what's really going to be the reason.
5.  It's really just a story about a boy being bullied for being who he is and him figuring out how to stand up for himself and ignore the bullies.  And it shows that process in a very realistic way with Shane feeling like there's no hope at all to begin with.  It's a good message for my teens to see that you can make it out of the depths of despair back to normal life.  

Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Dylan has a lot to live up to when compared to her big sister Dusty.  Dusty is a former Miss Mississippi, is now engaged to a Scottish lord, AND is the star of reality show Prince in Disguise which is tracing her relationship with her fiance Ronan.  Although she is constantly compared to her big sister, Dylan has no taste for fame so she is not happy when she finds out she will be part of the show as it travels to Scotland to prepare for the big wedding.  Almost immediately she meets charming, geeky Jamie and the two become fast friends, and more, which is just what Dylan needs to help her cope with all the reality show twists the producers have in store for her family.

Prince in Disguise is full of unexpected twists, deep secrets and gasp out loud moments... NAH, that's not true at all!  This book is about as formulaic as any Hallmark channel movie but if you were expecting something else, you need to do some more reading and watching so you can spot the "twists" a little sooner.  Instead, this book is warm and comforting because you do know what's going to happen and what the surprise will be.  But what makes it more fun than some others of its kind is that ALL the characters are charming, which matters a lot to me.  Dylan and Jamie's romance is fun and moves at a realistic pace for two teens.  Although Ronan's mom is a snob who doesn't care for Dylan's family, the two sisters and their mom are a pretty tight unit and Strohm does a great job not putting Mom into the trashy in-law faux pas-ing with the royals stereotype.  In fact, Dylan's mom is a great standard of class which really was a twist on the usual formula.  No surprises galore, but satisfying romances and family bonding abound.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge

The popular story of Mary Shelley creating Frankenstein is that a group of writers spending time at a lodge were challenged to write a scary story and Shelley's was chosen as the most disturbing.  Beyond that, I don't think I've ever heard much about Shelley's life.  I certainly never heard that she was an unwed mother or that the poet Shelley was married when he met Mary and they ran away together.  Mary Shelley's life was full of tragic events, many of which originated with her tumultuous relationship with Shelley.  Although her father wrote rhapsodic about free love, he was not supportive when Mary decided to pursue her own relationship so the two young lovers were banished and found themselves wandering Europe.  Shelley's reputation as a cad resulted in a lack of money for the pair in addition to the many deaths that surrounded them.  

This is a fascinating, and disturbing, biography full of information I didn't know about at all.  The text is descriptive and evocative and it, by itself, wrapped me in a dark, grim mood.  But in addition to the writing, there are the moody illustrations that show you the pain Mary is feeling and the monster hovering behind her at every step.  The entire book just works together to really take you into her life and gives you a real sense of the darkness that inspired the timeless story in the first place. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Mia has managed to get herself to Gaia, a planet that was home to a long-dead alien race called the Undying.  Just one power cell from Gaia is enough to power all of Los Angeles and the rest of Earth needs help as well.  If Mia can find some artifacts, she will be able to help save her sister from a bad job that is only going to lead to female exploitation.  When other scavengers almost get the drop on Mia she runs into Jules, a boy who is on Gaia to prove that his father wasn't crazy when he claimed there was a secret message in the Undying's writings that warned of extreme danger.  The two join forces to explore a smaller, unknown temple.  Jules hopes to find the answers to his questions while Mia is looking to cash out.  But the Undying secured their buildings with deadly puzzles that must be solved to get to the treasures and Jules and Mia are being followed by some other collectors who will stop at nothing to get loot for themselves.

Once again, a book for which I had some expectations that did not live up to them. In fact, if I wasn't already 3/4 of the way through the book, I would've put it down.  I struggled with:  
the characters
the romance
the puzzles
the constant on-the-run edness
the plot that didn't capture me

Are there other parts to a book?  Not really.  I can break it down a bit.  Neither Jules nor Mia interested me much at all although Jules had more possibilities for me since he had the knowledge of the Undying.  Unfortunately, we never learned much about this alien race and I had questions, dammit!  But given the ending, I can see that if we knew too awfully much, that might've resulted in some serious spoilers.  I also cared absolutely nothing for their romance which was completely YA lit formula and insta-love.  Will they?  Won't they?  Oh no - what about this misunderstanding!  I cared exactly zero because none of it felt real.

The puzzles left by the Undying could've been super cool but we were left to read long passages about how Mia and Jules solved them rather than being given the tools to figure them out ourselves.  I like puzzles.  I'm willing to bet that most avid readers like puzzles AND love when we figure out a twist or turn in a story before it is officially revealed.  Give me some hints about the glyphs or the pattern on the floor and I would've spent all kinds of time trying to prove how smart I am.  Instead, I was bored and skimmed quite a few of those passages.

I know there has to be some danger but I grow weary of a plot where the only thing moving the action forward seems to be the need to keep on the move because the bad guy is coming up behind you.  When I reviewed Illuminae I said that one thing I loved the most about it is that it is a great example of "show, not tell".  In Unearthed, Kaufman has lost that ability.