Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Screenshot by Donna Cooner

Skye has her life carefully planned out and the next step is to secure an internship with a senator in her town.  While at a sleepover with her two best friends Skye is pressured into dancing around in a nighty.  Without asking, Asha films her and posts the video to the latest social media platform, Chitchat, where nothing can be edited or removed for 15 minutes.  Skye panics about who might've seen the video but Asha takes it down as soon as she can and it seems like everything's okay.  Until a few days later when Skye receives an anonymous text threatening to post the video again unless she does whatever her blackmailer asks.  

Obviously there's a heavy message here for teens (and everyone...) about the dangers of social media but the story is not overshadowed by the message.  It's really more of a modern day thriller where the consequences are relatable for anyone who has acted rashly in a world in which everything is public.  Skye is a good character who believes she knows what she wants but still has some growing to do when it comes to being confident in herself.  I could feel her anguish about what to do as each new threat upped the stakes.  Cooner also makes it clear how quickly your trust in those closest to you can be shaken.  I know this will be a booktalk winner!

Turn It Up! by Jen Calonita


Lidia and Sydney have been looking forward to coaching their school's girl a cappella group to a huge victory now that they are co-captains of the Nightingales.  But those plans fall apart when Lidia catches Sydney kissing the boy she has had a crush on for over a year.  The former best friends are now fighting all the time and the future of their group is not looking good, especially when Lidia quits entirely to focus on her dancing.

There's the trashy book you read because you just want a break from all the heavy fantasy you've been reading, and then there's a book that's not even good enough to keep you mindlessly, but happily, zooming through it.  This book was the latter for me.  I'd been saving it specifically because I wanted to read it after I finished a few heavier books I had to get through and I wanted an easy palette cleanser.  Even going into it with that mindset I found myself putting it down and I even finished another book that I picked up in the middle of reading this one.  It was fine, but it wasn't charming enough to push into a fun summer read.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Whisper by Lynette Noni

"Jane Doe" has been captive for two and a half years while being subjected to tortuous experiments.  During that entire time she has not said a word because of what happened the last time she spoke.  Jane is confronted by the head of the institute and told that she will be working with a new handler but that she only has about a month to make a breakthrough before they end their work with her, permanently.  Expecting the worst, Jane is surprised when her new handler treats her like real person and steps in on her behalf when one of her other doctors goes too far with his experiments.  When she finally opens up a little she learns that she is not the only person able to create things by Speaking and that it is possible to control her power with enough training. 

I figured out some things about her new handler/trainer and was gratified to discover I was right about those things in the end.  I also predicted a couple other twists.  All that is to say that there is not so much unique in this book from other "girl who has untapped powers" books, but I still had fun reading it.  Jane is a nice, strong character who is surprisingly hate-free considering what she discovers about her family and the facility where she has been kept.  Her supporting cast is also fun and provide some needed warmth against the cold facility types.  I'm left with a few questions regarding the length of time Jane was held with no explanation and what her parents were thinking... But while reading the book I was just along for the ride and not questioning how we got there.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

Thanks to Lily's lack of impulse control due to her ADHD she ends up in detention when she accidentally breaks a room divider.  Her companions in detention are Abelard, a boy she scarred with her lunchbox when they were seven, and Richard, a talented artist who sketches a picture of Abelard that Lily takes.  Looking at the sketch of Abelard, Lily notices for the first time how handsome he is and she writes a passage from the old book The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise on it.  When the picture gets posted online and attracts a lot of attention, the two teens begin a texting relationship and then start dating in real life.  Lily is always battling the impulse control monster that arises within her whenever she is off her medication (medication that leaves her with no emotions whatsoever when she IS taking it) while Abelard fights his own social issues thanks to his Asperger's syndrome. Yet the two are perfect together until Abelard leaves to go to an exclusive school designed especially for him and others who are brilliant, and Lily decides to try an experimental brain surgery meant to help her focus.

In reflecting on this book I can see that Lily and Abelard's romance is very nearly a fantasy in how quickly it developed and how perfectly these two misfits fit together.  I can see that, but I don't care because while I was reading it I just loved both of them and how their oddness was what brought them together.  Although I guess the genre that best categorizes this book is romance, there is so much more in it, most notably, Lily's struggle with ADHD.  Not having that myself I can't speak to the authenticity of how it is portrayed (although the author says she has it) but assuming it's accurate, I got a real feel for the frustration of navigating the world and I could see why she would choose brain surgery even though that's a pretty extreme option.  There is so much rich description of Lily's reactions but the scene that sticks with me is when she sees other girls coming back to school with fancy coffee drinks and she wonders what it would be like to move through the world like those girls - no monsters inside, free to take so much for granted - and I realized that I am those girls and really thought about how Lily was struggling every minute of the day.   Creedle's writing is also full of just some beautifully crafted turns of phrase that had me marking passages to go back and ponder.  For instance, I was mostly sold on the book already by page three with the description of the noise level in a school without walls - a stupid educational/architectural trend that has already had two revivals during my career.  And then Lily's ruminations about happiness and our desire to be happy all the time and how we use happiness as a yardstick to measure the worth of our lives which she sums up as such:  "It's a bully of a word, happy."  That sentence stopped me in my (reading) tracks and knocked me back with its simplicity and profundity.  It is nice to read a book that I not only enjoyed for its story, but also for the way in which it is crafted.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Makepeace has spent a lot of nights near a cemetery learning how to defend herself from ghosts that want to possess her.  She never understood why her mother forced her to spend time there amongst the ghosts until she is sent to her father's ancestral home where she learns the family secret: the Fellmottes all have the ability to harbor the dead within themselves and there are many generations of elders living inside each of the adults.  Makepeace and her half brother James are there as back up vessels in case the careful planning of passing on the family ghosts goes awry.  The siblings have tried to escape several times but are always brought back.  But thanks to a family betrayal, Makepeace finds a way to get away.  Now she is in the thick of a civil war, spying, helping ghosts, and trying to escape her evil relatives.

No one is more surprised than me to find that I was able to give this book three stars.  No less than four friends - FOUR! - put this book down fairly early into it and another friend only gave it a two star rating.  If it weren't for the fact that it has been nominated for a reading program and that I wanted to have read it in order to be able to vote against it, I never would've even picked it up in the first place.  As the book went on I found myself mentally raising my rating until by the end I was up to three.  However, the beginning of the book is much too artsy and slow and I can't think of the student I would hand this to who would be delighted with it.  Not only is there WAAAAAAYYYY too much lead in to get to the really evil family and ghosts, it is historical fiction set in the 1600s with an English civil war pitting the king against Parliament.  It's like the author was looking for the the things teens care the least about.  Also, the daily life of a kitchen wench at that time.  Finally, though, we learn exactly what the Fellmottes are up to and why Makepeace is there.  From that point on, the book picks up speed with nasty ghosts, possession, aliases, betrayals, and spying.  There are also the ghosts Makepeace takes in willingly who help her through all of those other issues along with the ghost of a bear she had accidentally acquired earlier.Watching her work her way out of so many seemingly dead end situations with the help of her spirit companions was fun and I eventually just skipped over the boring war sections to keep the action moving.  So, the last half or so was not a bad page turner but getting to that point kills any interest from all but the most dedicated readers.