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.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

Thanks to The Agreement, brothers Lee and Felix each live with one of their parents and cannot see the other.  Lee lives with his mother who serves Memory, a Shade who helps people remember or forget memories.  Felix lives with their father who serves Death. Because the parents serve different Shades, they cannot see each other nor their other son.  Both boys help their respective parent and it is assumed they will each become the next apprentices to the Shades at age 16.  Both boys would like to free their family from The Agreement but that seems impossible until Gretchen comes into their lives.  Gretchen comes from a family of Summoners - people who can command the Shades through Rites - and has been told to stay away from Lee and Felix.  But after overhearing a conversation that indicates Death might have overstepped his role, Gretchen wants help investigating what's really happening and she won't take no for an answer when it comes to getting the brothers to comply.  In return, she might be able to help with their family problem.

This book has such a unique premise and that usually translates to a big thumbs up for me but I'm feeling somewhat ambivalent about it.  There were parts that I found intriguing and wanted to keep reading, but overall it wasn't a page-turner for me.  It would've helped a bit if the roles of the Shades, Summoners and apprentices were more clearly explained earlier on but I got there with it all.  It also would've helped if the terms of The Agreement had been explainer earlier on but again, I got there.  But really, those are small quibbles.  I think the biggest problem for me was that the solving of the mystery and the role each character played in it didn't become fascinating for me until too late in the book.  Also, the feeling seemed to vacillate between spooky/scary and more straight up mystery.  With supernatural suspects.  Not a bad book, but not a favorite.

The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding

Abby has landed the internship of her dreams at local boutique Lemonberry. She is a huge fan of the retro look and the fact that their dresses are available in plus sizes as well so she can wear them and write about them on her popular fashion blog.  In fact, her social media skills are a big part of what landed her the internship which has led to jobs and free clothes for previous interns.  The promise of so many great things leads to a big shock when Abby finds out the owner has taken on two interns this summer.  The other girl is Jordi Perez, a girl Abby knows vaguely from school who is rumored to have spent time in juvie.  The two girls hit it off and before long Abby finds that she has more than "just friends" feelings for Jordi.  Even more surprising to Abby, Jordi feels the same.

In thinking about this post I was going to say that I enjoyed this book immensely but that there is nothing groundbreaking in terms of rom-com.  Then I shook myself back to reality with a reminder that the main character is a fat, queer girl who gets to have a romance that is not all about either of them struggling to come out so it IS pretty groundbreaking after all!  Now, Abby does have to do a bit of coming to terms with who she is as a fat girl, but I can love that too because no matter how body pos you are, you still live in society.  There are a few things I would've liked to be a little different - more resolution in the mother/daughter relationship, more time with her best friend, and a stronger focus on the new friendship with Jax because the "Best Burger" stuff doesn't seem like enough of the plot to warrant it's own title shout out - but, hey, I'm not gonna let that bring me down.  Because the rest of the book is just good with fun characters who love and support each other.  It is exactly what I wanted it to be both in terms of a fat character and a not-straight teen.  It ended my year of reading on a high note!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, Eugene Yelchin

Elves and goblins have been at war for about a thousand years when the elfin king decides to send an emissary to the goblins with an offering - a large gemstone found underneath the king's wading pool.  The head of the king's secret police force chooses his old schoolmate Brangwain Spurge to deliver the stone.  Spurge was picked on in school and nicknamed Weedy and his schoolmate feels he would be an unassuming choice (and easy scapegoat).  Spurge is sent to the goblin kingdom where he is hosted by Werfel, a fellow scholar who is anxious to make the elf feel at home and to impress the goblin overlord.  Unfortunately, all of Werfel's efforts are for naught as Spurge constantly finds fault with everything he sees and seems completely uninterested in sharing any information.  The two also disagree over matters of fact about who provoked the other and started the war.  But after Spurge slips away in a failed attempt to spy on the goblins, the two are both under suspicion and find their fates intertwined as they escape together. 

I expected a silly book from M.T. Anderson and I was not let down.  Werfel is wonderfully hospitable and his feelings are so easily bruised by his rude guest who doesn't start to realize what all they have in common until things start to go wrong.  It's not until Spurge is in danger himself that he began to interest me as that was the point where he finally developed some sort of personality.  And the revelation about the gemstone was also a turning point in my interest in the story.  While I ended up liking the book and chuckling at the humor, I feel like it is another one of many books that appeals to adults but will have a very limited audience with teens.  The cover does it no favors and the humor is sly.  Since it is nominated for a reading program in my county I will have the chance to see if my assumptions about how teens respond to it are accurate.

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Emoni is going into her senior year of high school and is not sure what her future might hold.  She is a gifted home cook so when her school offers a new elective in culinary arts, she signs up even though her life is already very busy with a part time job and taking care of her two year old daughter. As an added pressure, the class is scheduled to travel to Spain over spring break but only if she can come up with enough money to pay for the trip and that seems almost impossible.  In the class she meets new boy Malachi but she is clear in letting him know she doesn't have time for anything other than being friends.  In the midst of juggling all the parts of her life she is also concerned about her abuela who seems to be going to the doctor more than usual while trying to form a closer relationship with her estranged father who left when she was just a baby.

Another beautiful book from Elizabeth Acevedo.  The way I could tell I was loving it is that I read for 30 minutes and then realized I hadn't checked the percentage counter on my Kindle in all that time!  That is unheard of for me since I am competitive with myself and always feeling like I'm behind on my To Do list.  So, things I love:
  • Emoni is so in love with her daughter and although there are a few others who try to make her feel ashamed of being a teenage mom, she knows who she is and holds her head high.  The book is not about being a statistic other than that her dedication to being a good mom drives some of her other choices and decisions.
  • I was unsure of Malachi when he was first introduced but he ends up being a good guy.  The progression of their relationship is slow and drama-free which is such a difference from the formulaic "Just when we were about to get close a huge misunderstanding made me sure he didn't really like me at all" thing in every other book and movie and TV show.
  • 'Buela is great and I am so happy that she - spoiler alert! - doesn't die or have some other major health issue.  That would've been the easy choice to make for Acevedo but again, she goes for real life.
  • Acevedo's writing is just lovely and makes me happy to read!

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young

Raquel and her best friend Sasha have been preparing for Sasha's death from cancer for a long time.  Even though she knew Sasha was dying, Rocki is still devastated.  Then she gets a letter from Sasha telling her to go to the cemetery and to bring her laptop.  Once there Rocki meets a boy with the exact same piercing blue eyes as Sasha. Before she died Sasha tried to locate her biological parents and in the process she discovered her brother, Elijah.  Sasha refers to them as her "favorites" and promises that she will be sending them on adventures together so Elijah can get to know her even though she has died.  The one condition Sasha sets is that they cannot tell her adoptive parents about Elijah.  That's a condition that bothers Raquel because she knows Sasha's parents have lots of money while Elijah, who has aged out of foster care, is barely getting by.  Even though she's sure Mr. and Mrs. Cade would love to help out, she is determined to follow Sasha's request.  But she's not feeling as sure she will be able to follow another request:  not to get involved with Elijah.

I was promised a tear-jerker with this book but it didn't get to my cold, cold heart.  Sasha is an amazing friend and I wish I was the kind of person who would be thinking about everyone else's happiness if I were dying but I suspect I'm not.  I couldn't even cry during the many scenes that were obviously tailor-made for crying.  I"m not saying it's a bad book or that I didn't enjoy it at all, just that it wasn't the emotional read I expected.  Instead, it was a good story of friendship with some almost magical realism thrown in.  I wish that things weren't so pat in the back half of the book and I wish that Sasha's parents could've seen the light without Elijah getting into quite so much trouble, but I can still appreciate the happy ending.  Good, but not great.

Courage by Barbara Binns

After their father died T'Shawn's older brother Lamont took his place as T'Shawn's biggest influence.  All that changed when Lamont became the leader of a local gang and left home, eventually ending up pointing a gun at T'Shawn.  Now T is happy to have Lamont out of his life and is looking forward to joining a local diving team.  The life he is trying to live comes crashing down when his mother tells him Lamont is getting out of prison early and will be moving back home with them.  

For the first three quarters of this book I was absolutely sure that I would be using it with one or more reading programs in the upcoming year.  I'm sure you can see what I'm going from there...  But before we get to the part I didn't like, let me talk about what was so great. 

This book captures so much of the atmosphere of more mature stories about gangs or families dealing with incarceration but in a totally appropriate younger middle school way.  My sixth and seventh graders are handling some of the same issues addressed in books like THUG or Long Way Down but they aren't always ready for those edgier stories.  Courage is something I could put on a required reading list without hesitation. 

T'Shawn is a great character, so wonderfully drawn.  He was crushed by Lamont's gang activity and by the fact that he apparently chose his gang friends over T.  Now he is doing what he thinks is necessary to protect himself and his family, including trying to get him to violate his parole.  He also doesn't hesitate to speak up for himself and others when he observes racism which he faces both at school and in his neighborhood.  But Binns does a great job weaving those incidents into the story smoothly without it being an obvious lesson we're supposed to learn, even though we can learn from them.  T's eventual return to giving Lamont a chance comes about naturally with setbacks along the way.

So what lost me?  The last quarter of the book felt so much more obvious and forced than the story up to that point.  The nuances left and too many issues were pushed in.  T's coach became a caricature and I didn't see any realistic motivation for the revelations from Lamont's girlfriend.  If the story were tidied up and finished with the skill with which it began, this would be something I would recommend all the time.  I'll still booktalk it, but I didn't love it as much as I thought I would.