Monday, January 25, 2016

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

Zlatka and Fania didn't know each other before they met at Auschwitz but when both girls lose the rest of their families to the Nazis, they decide to take a chance and rely on each other.  Their stories, told in free verse, paint a picture of the atrocities they faced each day and the ways in which they managed to go on with life despite those horrors.  It also shows them keeping their humanity.  This book is based on the real friendship of a small group of girls in Auschwitz.  They took the time to make a small book for one girl on her birthday and she kept that booklet with her until she was liberated.  This is a true story of the power of friendship and knowing that someone else cares whether you live or die and how that can give you the strength to go on.  It's another Holocaust story, but one with a different turn and it will be popular with my kids.

Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten

Kate knows how to  fit in at a new school; she's been doing that all her life.  So when she arrives at her latest private school she looks around for someone to latch onto and finds the perfect person in Olivia, the school "it" girl.  Olivia and Kate become fast friends even though it's obvious that Olivia is keeping some secrets about the previous school year and why she is repeating her senior year.  But Kate has secrets of her own dating back to early childhood.  The entire school is shaken up with the arrival of their new head of fundraising, Mark Redkin.  Mark is smooth and extremely good-looking and all the girls and women in the school are trying to get his attention.  But he is especially interested in Kate and Olivia and seems to know all their secrets.  Kate becomes more and more suspicious, especially after Olivia gets too involved with Mark.

I was expecting "Single White Female" but found something much different which messed with my head a bit as I tried to restructure what was happening in this book.  It takes a decidedly mature turn halfway (or earlier) in.  The big payoff is in the last few paragraphs of the story but I'm not sure that twist made the rest of the book worthwhile. Plus, I saw it coming given the title and comparisons to other books.  Good if you are into psychological thrillers.

I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book thanks to the publisher.

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

 Peppi knows the rules for surviving at a new school but she ends up breaking one immediately when she gets labeled as "nerder girlfriend" by accidentally tripping over the school outcast.  Embarrassed and worried about being an outsider, Peppi shoves the boy away and runs off.  Although she's able to make new friends in the art club, Peppi feels ashamed of how she treated the boy, Jaime and wishes she could apologize.  When she needs tutoring in science she is upset to see that Jaime is her tutor.  She's still unable to say the words but the two find they have a lot in common.  They largely hide their friendship at school, however, because the art and science clubs are feuding and competing for one table at the school fair.  That's when things start to get mean and dirty.

This is a graphic novel in the vein of things by Raina Telgemeier which is a good thing since teens can't get enough of her stuff.  The characters are winning and the story reflect typical middle school struggles.  I even liked the illustrations and could easily follow the story, something that doesn't always happen with manga.  A good next step for those who have read Smile fourteen times.

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

The students of Opportunity High School are gathered in the auditorium for a speech from the principal about the beginning of a new semester.  When they get up to leave, they find that all the doors are locked and then Tyler starts shooting.  During the next 54 minutes the reader hears about the shooting from four different perspectives:  Tyler's ex-girlfriend, his sister, his sister's girlfriend, and her brother.  Each of them have their own issues with Tyler but none of them could've imagined this would happen. 

This is a devastating book that left me thinking "whoa" for at least five hours after finishing it.  It is much too real and easy to imagine happening given the real school shootings of recent years.  What makes it strong:  we are never inside Tyler's head which is very good.  It would be tempting to somehow try to make us feel some sympathy for him since he is obviously disturbed but Nijkamp never takes us down this path.  The characters are diverse but in a natural way, not a "Oh, look, there are lesbians in here" way.  Their relationship is loving and rings true without exploitation which also goes for the Hispanic and Muslim characters.  Give this book a try, if you have the nerves to get through it.

You can watch my video review of it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJkLORgirxA

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Summer vacation has just started and Sierra is looking forward to working on the mural she is painting on a building in her Brooklyn neighborhood.  Things take a weird twist, however, when she begins seeing changes in the other paintings around her.  Murals seem to be fading away and she could swear she has seen the people in them moving and crying.  Her grandfather, who had a stroke a year ago, suddenly speaks to Sierra and says something about finishing her mural, shadowshaping, and working with a boy from school named Robbie who she barely knows.  When Sierra sees Robbie at a party later that day he is not confused about the term shadowshaper but also doesn't explain it all to Sierra before they are interrupted by a zombie-esque man who seems to know Sierra.  It turns out that Sierra's family are Shadowshapers, people who can connect dead spirits with artistic things and can control them.  Now a former friend of her grandfather's is using the spirits against the other Shadowshapers in order to take control of them all and only Sierra and her friends can stand against him.

I have not been looking forward to writing this review because I didn't much care for the book even though every single professional journal gave it a starred review. When that happens I wonder about my assessment but I did find some kindred spirits on Goodreads which has bolstered my resolve.  Let me first agree with everyone else that the cover is great and will definitely draw in readers.  But once I get past that...  The story is fine and similar to other popular fantasy titles.  Not similar in terms of the world being built, that is unique, but similar in that there is magic and a character who doesn't know she has powers and a threat to the world, and so on.  So I can recommend the book at school and it will be good.  But is it one of the best books of the year?  No, not in my opinion.  The world building is slight and I don't feel like Shadowshaping was every completely explained.  The explanations that Sierra did get came much too late in the story and there was no good reason for the delay.  If I suddenly discovered that I had some magical abilities, I wouldn't sleep until everyone had told me everything they knew about it all!  There are also some plot holes and convenient twists.  For example, at one point Sierra wonders who in her circle of friends could be leaking information to the bad guy.  She's sure she knows who it is and runs off to confront the girl only to find out it wasn't her but we never learn who it was.  It seemed to me that Sierra was a Shadowshaper but at some point she is ready to embrace her powers and asks Robbie to make her one.  He tells her it's not that simple and that he can't do that but then looks at her hand and says, basically, "hey, you're already one!  Let's go!"  It was just too simplistic for me. 

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady and Ezra have just survived their break up and the destruction of their planet.  When the mining colony on which they live is attacked by the BeiTech corporation the few survivors end up on the run on only three ships.  With their manpower severely depleted Ezra is conscripted into service and becomes a pilot while Kady hones her skills as a master hacker.  The survivors are barely staying ahead of the pursuing attacker when one of the ships is destroyed with only a few people managing to get out on escape pods.  But why are those lucky few quarantined in the bay in which they land?  With her hacking, Kady slowly begins to find documents that reveal a deeper story about the attack on the ship and the illness that began with the biological attack from BeiTech.  Meanwhile, both Kady and Ezra are realizing that their break up might have been a mistake but can they reconnect from their different ships before something else goes wrong?

This is such a unique book both in story and format.  The entire story is told via documents from the ship and commanding officers, IMs between characters, and transcripts of what the Artificial Intelligence on the ship is thinking.  So much happens that I cannot write about without giving too many spoilers but there is betrayal, danger, an AI, zombies, smart characters, and more!  I felt like it started a little slow in hooking me in which worries me in terms of grabbing my teen readers, but once the Copernicus is destroyed and we learn more about that event, the action doesn't stop.  The writing is also smart and the epitome of "show, don't tell".  Highly recommended for sci fi fans.

Watch my review of this book at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nqGis7zdQM

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Christopher was lucky to be taken in as an apprentice to an apothecary and he likes working and learning with Master Blackthorn.  Under his Master's tutelage Christopher has been solving puzzles and learning how to create lifesaving medicines as well as other concoctions such as gunpowder.  However, Christopher has been more worried recently due to a series of murders of other apothecaries rumored to be carried out by the Cult of the Archangel.  When the cult kills Master Blackthorn it is up to Christopher to decipher the clues he left behind to find the killers, find out what they're after, and stay a step ahead of them himself.

This is a good mystery for the type of mystery fans who like to solve puzzles, not just figure out who the killer is.  Christopher's ingenuity makes him a fun, likeable protagonist along with his devoted best friend Thomas.  The bad guys are abundant and not all of them are stupid so they are dangerous.  It didn't blow me away, but it was enjoyable and solidly middle school.

Acne, Asthma, and Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon by Rena Rocford

Allyson struggles with her severe acne and asthma.  These problems along with the fact that she is always the new girl in school because her mother makes them move several times a year make her an outsider at school.  But at her latest school she has finally made a close friend, Beth.  While at the mall one day, Beth and Allyson are harassed by a group of large boys and Allyson ends up breathing fire at them.  Although it's a shock to her, Beth isn't surprised since she, herself, is a troll.  Beth reveals a whole world of mythical creatures who look like humans and Allyson learns that she is half dragon.  Her acne?  Scales.  Her asthma?  Fire.  While she is still coming to grips with this secret identity no one ever told her about, a unicorn is kidnapped and Beth is the prime suspect.  The two girls go on the run to find the missing boy and keep Beth away from the murderous unicorns.

It seems like much more could have been made of the fun parts of finding out you're a mythical creature.  The relationship between Beth and the troll crushing on her was fun but the rest of the story, while fine, wasn't as great as I expected.  And, as always, it is a set up for a sequel although I guess I can't hold that against the book since that is what teens want now.  It just got too convoluted in the resolution for me.  Good cover!