Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Three kids in three different decades are forced to leave their homes in order to have a chance at a better life. 

Josef is a Jewish boy living in Germany in 1939.  When his father is returned to their family after spending time in a concentration camp, the family takes advantage of a Jewish relocation plan.  They board the St. Louis, bound for Cuba.  Josef and his mother are happy, dreaming of a better life without persecution in a new country but his father is scarred by his experiences with the Nazis and it seems that some of the Nazi persecution has come with them on the ship.

Isabel has lived her entire life in Cuba under Fidel Castro's oppressive reign.  When Castro says he will not stop Cubans who want to leave, Isabel's family joins their neighbors in a small boat to try to get to the United States, just 90 miles away.  But before they can reach freedom, they must survive days at sea, sharks, dehydration, and the risk of being returned to Cuba by the American Coast Guard.

Mahmoud has learned that the best way to survive the dangers in his city of Aleppo, Syria is to make himself invisible but even keeping his head down doesn't help with the bombings that destroy his apartment building.  Mahmoud's family starts a long trek to Germany that involves lots of payouts and dealings with people who don't have the family's best interest at heart all while their plight is ignored by much of the world.

Alan Gratz is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.  His most popular books deal with oppressive times and atrocities but he never relies on the horrors of the time period to do the work for him.  His writing style is calm - understated - which allows the reader to come to realizations along with the characters rather than telling us what to think.  Refugee does this beautifully.  All three families begin their journeys with hope and we as readers are led to believe they will soon be able to resume their normal lives in a better place.  But the danger and despair slowly grows for all of them.  Although they are separated by decades, their stories are very much the same which, I think, makes Mahmoud's story perhaps the most powerful for teens accustomed to hearing about bad things that happened in the past.  Mahmoud's family makes their escape with the help of cell phones and Google maps, clearly illustrating that these situations are not removed from us by time, only by our luck to be living in a safe place. 

Another thing that I appreciate is that Gratz does not tie everything up in a bow.  So many books for children and teens go for the happy ending or pull their punches with the bad guys.  In Refugee, each family suffers some serious, realistic losses so that even those families that manage to make it to safety do so with some sadness. 

Finally, I am always excited to learn something new even as I am stunned by how much I don't know.  Neither my husband nor I had ever heard of the St. Louis.  Although it is an awful story, it is fascinating.

Another great book by Gratz that I will definitely be using in reading programs at my school!


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Jess realized she was female several years ago but her father refused to give permission for his son Jeremy to begin hormone treatments because he was hoping it was just a phase or a mistake.  But now that Jess is 18, she can begin her physical transformation.  Besides his inability to accept who Jess really is, her father has further alienated her by dating her mother's former best friend.  Now they are planning to marry and Jess decides to take a cross country road trip with her best friend Chunk to surprise her father with her new look at his wedding.  Jess and Chunk are looking forward to talking and stopping at many cheesy roadside attractions on the long trip, but their trip ends up being much more than they anticipated.

I finished this book more than a week ago and I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it.  I have a general sense of dislike but other than the VERY pat ending, I'm not sure why.  But I'm going to try to work it out as I type. 


Jess is largely unlikable in many ways.  She is pretty much only focused on herself and her problems.  Now, given that she is just now beginning her physical transition and that is going to actually bring about a lot of problems in addition to just being a human in general, it is understandable that she'd be in a pretty selfish state of mind right now.  But that didn't make her any more pleasant to hear from to me as a reader.  Chunk calls her on it here and there but she's still basically all about Jess.  A large part of why that bugged me is because Chunk has been unbelievably supportive of her for years and she seems totally unaware of the fact that this is unusual and has probably been difficult for him.  In fact, she is totally unaware that it would be difficult for anyone around her to just immediately come to grips with who she is, especially her father. Which leads me to my next gripe...

I believe that we are supposed to be mad at Jess' father because he is not totally, completely on board with his son now being his daughter.  Jess herself is mad at a few things he says to her and uses them to illustrate how "unaccepting" he is.  I didn't have that issue with him.  In fact, I thought his reaction was realistic and fine.  He did not tell her to get out of his life or disown his child.  He was struggling to understand but still wanted a relationship with her  Jess was the one to cut off all contact.  Just like she is the one who is furious at Chunk because he has told his mother about her.  Jess doesn't realize that most people aren't immediately completely fine and dandy with someone they care about coming out to them.  (Except her mother was which is another complaint I have because I don't believe she would be totally on board from the get go.)  I say all this as 1.  Someone who is not straight who had to come out to many family members and friends.  I only completely lost one friend who couldn't come to any acceptance, but several other people had to process things including my mom who immediately said "You are my daughter and I love you no matter what" but still made unthinking comments for years.  2.  Someone who has a close family member who is a trans man.  All of the family is loving and accepting and there was never a question of cutting this person out, but that didn't mean that there wasn't some adjusting.  We've all been socialized with expectations and dreams for people based on their sex, even if you don't know it.  And now that this person is the opposite sex, you have to readjust your thinking.  It does not happen in the blink of an eye.  Jess' father is struggling, but he is trying and she doesn't give him room to work on it.

Whew!  I think I might've gotten to the meat of the problem there.  But other than Jess being an issue, here are some other things I disliked:

  • We don't get to know much about Chuck/Chunk at all.  Much has been written about Jess' fat-shaming of Chuck but there really isn't even a description of him.  He is a bland, too good to be true, friend.
  • The aforementioned  ending.  UGH, make this better!!!  Not only is it way too convenient, it just ends without any further development or comment.  
  • The road trip formula although I know this is entirely my issue.  I am very much a schedule girl and pretty much any road trip story has to have deviations from the schedule and that makes me antsy.  They left late!  They stayed too long at the cabin to help the neighbor! They didn't get to their first planned destination!  And they had to get to Chicago by a specific day and time so how was that going to happen with all these delays?!!  I understand this is my particular sickness and that I'm reading a piece of fiction, not embarking on my own road trip, but it all made me uneasy.

Okay, so obviously I didn't like this book.  My only question to maybe temper my bad review is this:  Is it valuable to have a book that presents a trans character in a non-sensational way even if that book is not very good overall? 


City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

Tina is a burglar and thief who works for the Goondas gang in Kenya.  She arrived in the city with her mother several years before but after her mother's murder, Tina has been surviving as best she can while ensuring her younger sister is safe at a local boarding school.   Tina has a clear mission:  revenge on the man she is sure killed her mother, Mr. Greyhill.  She has convinced the head of the gang to be part of her scheme to bring Greyhill down, steal his money, and kill him.  While Tina is in the home downloading files, she is caught by her former friend Michael who is Mr. Greyhill's son.  Michael is sure his father couldn't be a killer and strikes a deal with Tina to work together to find out the truth so she can be sure to bring down the correct person.  But the people with whom Tina works do not like changes in plans and they expect compensation, no matter what.

This is a multi-layered book with strong characters throughout.  Too often in stories the lead character is a miserable jerk who eventually learns something and becomes likeable by the end.  Tina is definitely unhappy but she is likeable throughout with her wits, skills and loyalty to her friends.  Michael and BoyBoy, the other two main characters, are just as developed and interesting.  Tina never shies away from the hard decisions but that didn't take away from my ability to identify with her. Although the three main characters are all pretty good people, most of the adults are harder to pin down one way or the other which makes them interesting and realistic. 

The book is a mystery and most chapters ended on enough of a cliffhanger for me to decide I had time to read just one more chapter...  But in addition to the satisfying mystery, Anderson has done a great job capturing the setting and some of the realities of life in Africa.  In order to find some answers, Tina decides to return to her former home in Congo.  Her town is a dangerous place constantly being attacked by various warlords who do some horrible things to the people in the town. All of these atrocities are included in the book but none of them in a way that makes this inappropriate for middle school readers.  In fact, the details are there to make it clear what, exactly, has happened to some people which is important for possibly taking some American teens a little more outside of their insulated worlds and hit them with the reality of life when your fate is at the whim of vicious, power-hungry men.  Even as I laud the wonderful way the setting is presented, I also want to point out that none of it feels too foreign for American readers which is great because books set in other countries are often dismissed by teens. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Bronwyn is headed to Yale like both of her parents before her.  Addy is beautiful and dating the most perfect guy in school.  Cooper is a baseball pitcher who is already being scouted by the MLB.  Nate has been in trouble with the law and has a reputation as a troublemaker.  Simon runs a gossip app that somehow finds out the dirt about everyone in school.   The five of them don't interact in real life but they all wind up in detention together after a teacher busts each of them for having a cell phone.  The problem is, none of them have any idea where the confiscated phones came from.  While the group is distracted by a car accident outside, Simon drinks a glass of water and then drops dead.  After his death is ruled a murder it is revealed that he was about to publish a column revealing dark secrets about each of the other four students in the room at the time of his death. Which of them was willing to kill Simon to keep the truth quiet?

What a fun book with enough twists to keep you guessing!  I liked all four of the major characters and was getting sadder and sadder as the book went on because I didn't want any of them to be lying or to be the killer, but I liked watching Addy the most as she developed into a real person rather than someone's girlfriend.  And even though I didn't want one of them to be the killer, I was savoring what a delicious surprise it would be when it was finally revealed who had been lying all along.  I do love an unreliable narrator!  The final bits of things in the book tied up too neatly but this isn't meant to be a deep, troubling book - it is just a great read to enjoy as you're along for the ride.

The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon

Hel is the daughter of Loki and a giantess and like her older brothers, she is not entirely human.  Hel is born with decaying corpse legs which disgusts both of her parents.  At age 14 Hel and her brothers are taken by the Gods to Asgard where she meets Baldr long enough to fall in love with him before she is thrown into the underworld to be its queen.  Hel then spends eternity brooding about her lost love and getting revenge on the other immortals who have left her underground without another thought.

The review I read of this book described it as a good next step for Percy Jackson fans.  I haven't read any Percy Jackson books for years but this is nothing like I remember of them.  Hel's griping is somewhat funny at first as it seems so modern even as she is telling you about events from the Norse myths thousands of years ago, but I was so over it by about chapter three.  There really is no story here other than hearing a disgruntled narrator tell her version of her myth.  If you are not familiar with the myth, perhaps that is enough, but I'm no Norse scholar and I didn't find it compelling.  What's more, I felt like quite a few things were repeated.  A point would've just been made and then in the next chapter it was summarized again.  It reminds me of those reality shows where you come back from the commercial and the narrator catches you up on what you just saw three minutes ago.  I suppose there's not a lot to work with here since Hel is stuck in her own underworld and refuses to interact with any of the dead she oversees, but that's something the author should've considered when deciding to tell her story.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Project (Un)Popular by Kristen Tracy

Sixth grader Perry has a passion and a talent for photography so being on the yearbook staff is a natural fit for her.  Even better, her best friend Venice is on the staff as well.  The two girls are looking forward to helping to craft the yearbook and are flattered that the editor, Anya, chose them based on their photos. But it soon becomes clear that Anya has her own vision that involves putting a spotlight on all of the most popular kids in school and ignoring everyone else.  When Venice starts dating a boy Perry can't stand, she is open to Anya's suggestions to work as a spy and to help Anya with her yearbook dream.

I am on a roll of books that are just not very great and that is not a good roll to be on.  Storylines were dropped or put on hold indefinitely (because this is going to be a series) and Perry is not a winning protagonist.  She is quick to sell out her friend but never has a conversation with said friend about what is bothering her.  Because it is obviously a series, the "ending" did not even try to tie things up.  Another chapter could've come right there without missing a beat. 

Children of Eden by Joey Graceffa,

 Rowan has never seen anything outside of her own house and yard.  She is an illegal second child and would be arrested, or worse, if anyone knew she existed.  Rowan's mother informs her that she has arranged for Rowan to receive black market eye implants that will give her the same rights as anyone else in Eden.  The catch is that she will have to go live with another family and never seen any of them again, not even her beloved twin brother. On the way to the surgeon's office, they are stopped by government police officers and Rowan barely manages to make her escape.  But the danger is just beginning for her and those close to her.

I'm sighing as I try to figure out what to write about this book.  I didn't have high hopes for it to start with because 1.  It has not been reviewed by any of my usual sources; 2.  The author is a reality TV star/YouTube sensation; 3.  The premise seems to be a direct copy of Haddix.  My expectations were right on target in terms of my enjoyment.  The surprise revelations were not surprises to me and things went exactly where I expected.  The writing is not great overall with large chunks of action just being skimmed over a paragraph.  How many times did a character say to Rowan "Do you trust me?"  Considering that she had never met either of these people until two days before and that both of them betray her at times, I don't know why she should trust them.  It was just a trial to make it to the end.

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Chantel is well on her way to being a powerful sorceress, exhibiting unusually strong summoning powers in particular, but she isn't as good at being quiet and submissive which is a requirement for the young ladies at Miss Ellicott's School for Magical Maidens.  When Miss Ellicott and all the other sorceresses who help protect the city disappear, Chantel and her friends set out to find them.  The first stop is to talk to the city's patriarchs who are expecting Chantel and have their own plan for what she ought to be doing.  The king is equally unhelpful and devious.  It becomes clear that Chantel must rely on her friends, a boy from outside the city walls, her newly-arrived dragon, and the memory of a queen she keeps summoning accidentally.

I had a tough time getting through this one.  It seems like it ought to be the type of thing I would enjoy but it was slow and the writing felt stilted and self-aware.  I enjoyed Chantel's conversations with the former queen but there were not enough of those to keep me very motivated.