Sunday, February 26, 2017

One Half From the East by Nadia Hashimi

After her father loses one of his legs in an explosion, Obayda's family has to move to her father's village where there is family to help them.  With her father in a deep depression, the family needs some good luck so Obayda's aunt suggests making her into a bacha posh - a girl dressed as a boy.  Girls in Afghanistan have to follow a strict set of rules so having a boy in the family will give them some options to help out while giving Obayda more freedom for a few years until she has to go back to being a girl.  Within days Obayda cuts her hair, puts on boys' clothes, and becomes Obayd.  She is confused about who she is and how to act like a boy until she meets another bacha posh who shows her how much freedom they have now.  The two become best friends, wishing to never have to turn back into girls.  But parents and society have other plans.

I was completely absorbed in this book and compelled to do more research on bacha posh when I finished it a day later.  Often, books set in other cultures are all about teaching us something important about that culture at the expense of the story.  While the parts of Afghani culture were there, the story and Obayd's experiences were front and center.  This book has been nominated for a middle school reading program in my county and I think the discussion about culture and gender will be fascinating!  I have a couple of quibbles with the end where Obayda thinks that a couple of women she knows would've been good bacha posh because they are so strong - why do they have to be "boys" to be strong? - but that's a small thing and could easily be a reflection of the culture.  Otherwise, I loved it.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

Enn and Vic are headed to a party but Enn not excited about it.  Vic always does well with girls while Enn doesn't even know what to say to them and has barely kissed anyone.  As soon as they get to the party Vic immediately hits it off with the prettiest girl there, leaving Enn with the advice to just talk to the girls.  He tries with a girl sitting alone but doesn't understand much of what she says about being a tourist here.  The next two girls are also confusing and when Vic stumbles down the stairs with his girl looking like she's on fire, it seems like these women might be more alien than expected.

I have friends who love everything Gaiman writes and I usually enjoy his pithy quotes that show up regularly in my various feeds but I guess I am not in a Gaiman-esque mindset when it comes to his books.  I did not enjoy, nor understand, what all is happening here.  I get the "girls are like an alien species" thing but I'm assuming there's more to it than that, especially with the woman who recites her poem to Enn. I'm curious to see the reception it gets from my students but it is not my cup of tea.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Secret Identity Crisis by Jake Bell

Nate loves comic books and superheroes.  He has even won a competition at the local comic book store because he knows so much about them so he's very excited when his town finally has its own superhero arrive.  No one knows much about Ultraviolet except that she's fast, strong and can fly but Nate is determined to find out more.  He receives an added incentive when his science teacher offers him extra credit to find out everything possible about Ultraviolet, including her secret identity.  Before long Nate has a guess about who she might be in real life but it seems impossible since his guess is his super-strict history teacher.

This is a fun book that follows a pretty typical superhero arc.  The villain is pretty easy to figure out but I still enjoyed him as a character as well as his motivation for becoming Ultraviolet's nemesis.  My favorite part of the book, however, is the way all the other superheroes are just thrown into the narrative as if we just know about them.  I found myself marveling at how clever Bell is in imagining heroes and their powers.  And I wish that I knew more about lots of them.  Since this is a series, it's possible that will be happening.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen

Gerta and her family live in East Germany and her family is divided about that.  Her father wants to move the entire family to West Berlin but her mother is worried about leaving the home they have always known.  While Gerta's father and one brother are away to see about finding jobs and a place to live in the west, the Soviets erect the Berlin Wall overnight permanently separating the two halves of the city.  Gerta, her mother and her older brother Fritz are stuck on the eastern side where it is a crime to even dream of a better life.  

Four years later Gerta looks at the wall and sees her father on a viewing platform on the western side.  He is doing a silly dance he used to perform for Gerta but spends too much time on the part that pantomimes digging.  After receiving a smuggled message from her father Gerta concludes that he wants her to dig a tunnel under the wall to escape to the west.  Gerta and Fritz desperately want to flee to freedom but if they are caught the penalty will be death or worse.  But their family is already being monitored because of their father's actions and time for Fritz is running out before he will be forced to join the military.

Historical fiction is not my most favorite genre but I can really like it when there is a good story that just happens to be set in the past.  I found myself tearing through this book because the story kept me interested.  I also found that I was tense for a good deal of the time while I was reading because I could feel the danger that was closing in on Gerta and Fritz and I wasn't sure they were going to escape.  I think my anxiety while reading indicates how well Nielsen kept the story moving and how effectively she created the atmosphere of living in a totalitarian society.  I could do without the cover which does nothing for me.  I also spent time looking through the book for a diagram of the wall and the death zone between the east and west.  That would've been helpful.  Otherwise, an engrossing read!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip M. Hoose

I have always admired the Danes and been proud to have a tiny bit of  Danish blood in me because of the stories I have heard about their efforts to protect the Jews of their country during World War II.  I didn't know, however, that Denmark did not start the war with resistance.  In fact, when Germany first arrived, the king decided not to resist in order to reduce bloodshed and it seemed that most of the country was okay with going along with that.  But a handful of teen boys were not.  This book tells the story of the Churchill Club which is credited with helping start a full blown Danish rebellion against the Nazis.

The author of the book met with Knud Pedersen who was one of the founding members of first the RAF club and then the Churchill Club, both groups of teens who were determined to fight back against the Germans in their country.  The boys started with simple acts of vandalism such as painting their symbol on German buildings and cutting telephone wires.  But before long they were stealing weapons and blowing up train cars full of airplane wings.  The boys were eventually caught and imprisoned but their daring inspired other Danes to begin fighting back.

At a time when many of us are struggling to think of ways to contribute to a resistance this is a great book to show that even smallish acts can lead to big results.  The writing is clear with nice fact boxes adding other important details to help understand the time period.  I don't care for a book that over-dramatizes a story but I felt that this one could've done with just a little more drama because the things that were happening were extraordinary.  I also wish the publisher would change the format to make the book a bit larger with bigger text and pictures.  It will definitely appeal to my students and is something I'm likely to put on a recommended reading list.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

de-Extinction: The Science of Bringing Lost Species Back to Life by Rebecca Hirsch

Is Jurassic Park just around the corner?  This book about finding ways to bring extinct animals back says very clearly that we won't be seeing dinosaurs and carefully explains why that is.  It does, however, show the steps that are being taken to bring other extinct animals back to life.  Complicated science is presented in a comprehensible way - or as comprehensible as it can be when you are explaining pretty dense topics.  (There were times I was still a little lost.)  While reading, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever hear about more than mammoths and wondering why we'd want to resurrect them anyway?  But then we segued into Asian elephants and how mammoth DNA might help their flagging populations and I was back in it.  Even more so when I learned about how elephant/mammoth hybrids could help the mammoth steppe.  One thing I appreciated a lot was the presentation of science as unquestioning reality.  That might seem obvious, but in our current era you can just take that for granted.  Evolution, the fossil record, DNA, climate change, and more are discussed as the facts they are with nary a "many people believe" intro to lessen the impact of the facts.  A really interesting, thoughtful, objective look at environmental issues and how science is working on them. 

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza

Rhee is the last surviving member of the Ta'an dynasty and will soon be old enough to take her place as the Empress.  Rhee was never intended to take the throne before her entire family died in an explosion, an explosion where Rhee was supposed to perish as well.   She has spent the time between then and now plotting to murder of the man she is sure killed her family.  On her way to her coronation and long-awaited revenge, Rhee is attacked by someone she knows well.  After escaping she is reported to be dead and must stay on the run to keep ahead of other assassins and the person ordering her death.  Publicly, her death is blamed on Aly, one of the stars of a reality show.  Aly has evidence that he is innocent and that Rhee is still alive on his implanted Cube but he has to get someplace he can upload that video memory to clear his name and the people who framed him in the first place aren't making that easy.

A sprawling space opera is so up my alley most of the time so I was excited to begin this book.  Upon finishing, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.  I was swept up at the beginning but began to question my enjoyment level about halfway through.  I can't say that nothing happened but that was the point where it felt like the characters were traveling from planet to planet without moving the story forward that much.  I think my bigger problem was the world building that occurred throughout the entire book.  Going into sci fi and much fantasy I know that I will be confused for a couple of chapters until I get a handle on the world being created by the author.  Once I get the jist of the world, I'm fine.  And I want to state that I'm a big fan of show, not tell.  I hate when an author has a character just conveniently say "Oh, you mean ____________" to explain things to the reader.  However, this book could've actually used just a bit of that device.  There were new aliens, planets, terms being introduced nearly all the way to the end so I never felt totally comfortable with the interplanetary politics or lingo.  That disorientation turned me off the story.  Finally, there is a reveal at the end that I felt was obvious quite a few chapters earlier.  When that happens for me in a book I'm never sure if I am supposed to be surprised and am just too clever or the author not clever enough, or if maybe it wasn't really supposed to be a surprise in the first place.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick

The beginning of 8th grade is not going well for Claire.  Her two best friends in dance class have both been moved up to the high school group while Claire is left dancing with girls two to three years younger than her.  At school, her nasty science teacher puts her in a lab group with Ryder, a boy who seems to live to torment her, Regina who steals part of Claire's lunch each day, and the most popular mean girl who puts Claire down.  Claire's parents don't seem to get how bad she has it.  In fact, Claire tells her father that he might need to struggle a little more to really understand how tough things are.  But her words come back to bite her when her father has a stroke that leaves him with more struggles than Claire could have ever imagined or wanted.  

I just could not get wrapped up in this book and Claire's voice seemed inauthentic to me compared to the several hundred 8th graders I see each day.  I know that the story is supposed to be moving as Claire's family comes to grips with the changes in her dad as he recovers, but it felt very surface-y to me.  In fact, a lot of the book seemed to be skimming over the surface of the situation rather than delving deeply into what would really be happening.  I know there will be students who will love it because of the drama or because they can relate to the parental illness, but it's not one I see myself recommending a lot.  

A couple of other notes:  
1.  I see several people saying it is perfect for 7th or 8th grade and up but it read younger than that to me even though Claire is 8th grade.  The overall story and narrator felt more like a 6th to 7th grade story.
2.  This book is nominated for a countywide reading program in which I participate.  As something that might be somewhat "required" - a set list of books that we promote even though no one is required to read anything in particular - I think that some of the description of Claire's period will be an issue for both the boys and girls in the group.  It will certainly make group discussion difficult for middle schoolers.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

Every 12 years Canaan is beset by The Forgetting, a day of chaos where everyone loses his or her entire memory.  In order to be able to rebuild their society after the Forgetting, citizens of Canaan write daily in their books recording events, feelings, family members, and loves.  Without a book, you could become one of the Lost.  Nadia is the only person in Canaan who remembers anything from before the Forgetting and she knows just how brutal that time can be when people will do things just because they know no one will remember what has been done.  After bringing back an unusual plant from one of her many secret trips over the wall into the outside, Nadia believes she has found something that might help restore the memories of others in Canaan.  She decides to test it on Gray, the glassblower's son since she has a specific memory of him from before the Forgetting.  Her experiment doesn't work but she does begin to form a relationship with Gray.  But if she can't find a way to stop the Forgetting in the little time they have left, he won't remember what they have.

I blazed through this book in about a day and a half because Cameron kept introducing new events that hooked me into the story again.  About halfway through I looked at how much I had left and felt a tiny bit of despair that now it would just be more of the same for another 150 pages but then a secret door showed up with all sorts of new wonders and villains.  Hooray!!  I can say that in general I am so over the romance portion of books because they are laid out in exactly the same way in each book and are often unnecessary.  And the teens at my school have said exactly the same thing in case you are a YA author...  But Nadia and Gray's relationship felt natural and didn't overpower the story with lots of passages where Nadia knew she ought to be saving the world but instead couldn't stop thinking about Gray's lips but then shook herself back to what was happening, and so on.  I liked them as a couple and I liked the obstacles they faced and the revelations along the way.  A fresh dystopia which is nearly an oxymoron now.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Girl on a Plane by Miriam Moss

As the summer of 1970 draws to a close, Anna is set to fly back to England to start a new year at boarding school but her flight is hijacked by Palestinian guerillas.  Forced to land in the Jordanian desert, everyone on the plane is threatened with death if the English prime minister does not release an imprisoned hijacker.  After turning off the plane, the captives endure blazing heat in the day, cold at night, extreme thirst and hunger, and the threat of the plane being blown up hanging over their heads for four days.  

I was excited to start this book which is based on the real experiences of the author but it fell fairly flat for me.  A good indication of this is that it took me five days to get through it which is a ridiculously long time for a book of only 272 pages.  I obviously wasn't captivated enough to pick it up often.  Although it is counter-intuitive to say so, I felt like the story lacked enough tension.  Perhaps that was on purpose as Anna talks about the boredom of being on the plane even as the terrorists strap explosives on.  One brighter spot for me was the way in which Anna comes to understand why a couple of the Palestinians are taking this course of action.  Moss does a good job of showing their rationale without making their actions sympathetic.