Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle is just starting summer break and it appears that a really cute boy likes her so her life should be great, right?  It would be, if not for her mother's hoarding problem and her father completely ignoring the problem.  Annabelle can remember life before her mother started "collecting" things but now there are empty, molding milk jugs in the pantry, six foot high stacks of newspapers in the kitchen, paint cans in her brother's bedroom, a mountain of broken doll parts in her sister's room, and more in every inch of the house.  Every inch, this is, except for Annabelle's room.  When she was ten she threw all of her mother's junk out her bedroom window and has kept her room bare ever since.  Annabelle also has a rule that keeps all her friends at least five miles away from her house so that no one knows what is happening there.  But their lives are about to get more public when Annabelle's father leaves and her grandmother shows up.

Let me start with this cover which is so ridiculous I don't even know what to think about whomever designed it.  This is a much more serious book than the cover would ever lead you to believe so that always annoys me.  I know that authors don't get a say on the artists associated with their books, but even the title comes across as somewhat goofy rather than serious hoarding story.  Once you get past those two things, the book is good at portraying the uncomfortable feeling of being surrounded by junk all the time and the family dynamics that help enable this disorder.  Since the book focuses on Annabelle you don't learn as much about what led her mother down this path nor do you see the entirety of her mental state.  Like, why can't she just throw away all this stuff that is obviously trash?  Seems simple but the little I know about hoarding makes me know that it's not that easy.  This is not really covered in the book but that's okay since I think this is more about Annabelle coming to terms with the reality of her life and not covering everything up all the time.  The ending is too simplistic and optimistic but otherwise, a decent book about handing a dysfunctional family.

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

Twins Tess and Theo live in an apartment that was designed by the legendary Morningstarr twins in the 1800's.  The Morningstarrs were the architects for all kinds of technology that is still in use today.  They also left behind the Old York Cipher - a series of clues and puzzles that will lead to a huge treasure for whomever can solve it.  So far, no one has managed to do that, not even the Cipherist Society of which Tess and Theo's grandfather was a member before he developed memory problems.  The people of the apartment building get word that it has been purchased by Darrell Slant, a billionaire real estate developer who will likely raze the building and put up something new and shiny.  With only a month until they will all be evicted, Tess and Theo feel like their only hope is to solve the Cipher and use the treasure to save their beloved building and piece of history.  With the help of their neighbor, Jaime Cruz, they start off on their crusade which proves to be more dangerous than they imagined.

I was so into the first chapter of this book with Ava taking on the murderous stalker but then she disappeared entirely from the story.  From then on the book felt youngish to me.  Where are the Morningstarrs?  Where is Ava?  Where are the badass people who created all these amazing creatures, puzzles, and technology over 200 years ago?  If I hadn't had my expectations raised by the opening chapter and the gushing about how amazing the Morningstarrs were, I probably would be more forgiving of what the book actually was - a fine mystery with young sleuths.  There were a couple of twists I didn't see coming but more that I did.  Especially the person who proved to be untrustworthy even though they were blatantly told to TRUST NO ONE!!!  Considering that Theo apparently reads as much as I do, he should've seen that one coming.  I also have issues with the clues and ciphers themselves because I don't feel like we, as readers, have much chance of deciphering them.  A couple of the clues rely on knowing about some of the Morningstarr inventions which we obviously can't know   When I'm reading a mystery I want to have a shot at solving it myself.  If the author uses clues or characters that are not available to the reader, that's cheating.  So in the end, the book is okay for me, but not great.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail

Gracie is surprised when she suddenly realizes that A.J., a boy she has known all her life, is very good-looking.  Once she realizes that she likes him, Gracie finds she has forgotten how to breathe or do any of the most basic things she used to know how to do.  But then she finds out that A.J. actually likes Gracie's best friend, Sienna.  Gracie is a good friend and is truly happy for Sienna despite her disappointment and even helps Sienna compose witty texts to banter with A.J.   In fact, it's almost like Gracie's the one having the relationship with A.J.

This story, inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac, is very of the moment in terms of the language and technology.  I was captured at the part where Gracie sees a woman who looks very much like her and is reassured that her future will turn out fine.  But as the book went on it lost some of its glow for me with long paragraphs of Gracie's train of thought.   While her back and forth thought process seems realistic, it was wearing to read and I was longing for another character to come into the picture.  In the end this felt like just another youngish romance.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Crow washed ashore on a small island in Massachusetts in a tiny skiff when she was only a few days old.  Luckily, she was found by Osh, the man who has raised her and been her father all these years.  Their neighbor Miss Maggie has been Crow's teacher and good friend.  The assumption in town is that Crow was set adrift by someone from the closest island which was a leper colony at that time but is now a bird sanctuary.  Because of their fear of contracting leprosy, the rest of the people in town keep their distance from Crow.  Crow has begun to wonder about her birth parents and starts trying to find answers through letters and by visiting the island.  The man they meet on the island only leads them to more questions, and danger.

I am a huge fan of Wolf Hollow and while I enjoyed this book, it didn't have anywhere near the same urgency as Wolk's previous one.  The characters were interesting but the slow pace of life on their island led to a slow pace of narration in the book. 

The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

As the title tells you, Cammie is the daughter of the warden of Hancock County Prison sometime in the late 1950's.  Cammie's mother died while saving Cammie's life as an infant and now she is feeling the need to have a mother around.  Cammie feels like Eloda, the prison trustee who does the housework for them, might be a good replacement mother and she sets about trying to make Eloda act more maternally.

There are other things happening in this book but most of them just never develop into anything other than anecdotes that I believe are supposed to round out the story in some way.  A friend who has just begun the book was excited by the introduction of the child killer arriving at the prison and said she can't wait to see how that plays out.  The answer is:  it doesn't.  He arrives, people are angry, you don't hear much more about that other than how Cammie's dad sets up solitary for him and how her friend is fascinated by him.  That's the case with several of these storylines and a big problem with the book which is actually entirely about Cammie's anger over not having a mother.  White hot anger is not enough to sustain a story for 300 pages nor does it make for an especially sympathetic character who displaces all over everything and everyone.  

The next issue is the writing style and the setting.  The writing is fine, but boring.  It has the feel of an author who is trying to be deep with some fragments or edgy descriptions but that type of writing doesn't grab me and it definitely won't grab middle schoolers.  Nor will the historical fiction setting.  Teens don't like historical fiction unless there is an amazing story that just happens to take place in the past or unless the historical time period is the Holocaust.  Furthermore, they don't care to learn about the past so all the references to Bandstand are meaningless.  And yet even though the book is historical fiction, there is no mention of issues of race which surely would've been an issue with either Andrew's family or with BooBoo.

Finally - the ending!!  There are two HUGE, problematic endings to the book.  The first ending is where Cammie, narrating as an adult, suddenly summarizes her life from age 13 until her early 20's.  We've been stuck in a few weeks of time throughout the entire book but now we learn in a few paragraphs what happened to her for the subsequent seven or so years.  Fast forward at supersonic speed!  Ugh.  All of which serves as a device for the next lazy plot device of the diary that reveals all sorts of secrets.  Through Eloda's diary we finally get to hear her voice which is supposed to explain why she basically had no personality throughout the rest of the book and why her abandonment of Cammie was actually a good thing.  And the other big reveal in the diary?  I'm not buying it at all.  

This is definitely one of those books that out of touch adults will think is great for teens but that teens will avoid like the plague until it finally gets weeded from the library shelves. 

Posted by John David Anderson

Before beginning middle school Frost worried about whether he would make friends.  Now in 8th grade, he is part of a "tribe" of four guys who are different but who all get each other.  When new girl Rose shows up and then starts sitting with the group at lunch, the balance of Frost's group gets thrown off.  In addition, Rose is something of an oddball and Frost isn't sure it's a great idea to be associated with her at all since they are already a target for the school bullies.  Things start to really escalate when the school declares a complete ban on cell phones.  Students begin using Post-it notes to leave notes - first on lockers and then everywhere else in school.  The notes are cute and friendly at first but soon take a different turn.

I found this book to be fine which is not as damning as it sounds, but it wasn't what I was expecting going into it.  I feel like it is being sold as a story about bullying but it read more to me like a growing up/friendship dynamics story.  The bullying is definitely in there, but since I work in a middle school, it seemed more like just what I see everyday.  Which is probably pretty sad, when I lay it out like that.  The final big act that leads to things changing for the main characters isn't prefaced enough to be totally effective.  When we are told what was written on the locker, the impact wasn't great because I didn't know all the backstory leading up to that and why it was so devastating to that character.  All of that was explained - what the bullies had been saying to him - but not until after it happened.  So I feel like the bullying aspect of the story was not as strong as it could have been nor as I was expecting.

However, the group dynamics part of the book was really good.  It was painful watching the one tribe member distance himself from the group and I think most adults can remember that happening to a friend (or being that friend) who is very suddenly not a close friend anymore.  Rose is a great character.  At first she is a problem for the friends but her presence allows them to change and deepen their relationships.  I assumed she was hiding some huge secret but no, she's just straightforward and fascinating.  So I feel that this is a good book that has some marketing issues.  Read it as a coming of age/growing up/friendship story and you will enjoy it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Natasha is beginning her last day in the United States.  Her parents are illegal immigrants from Jamaica and they are being deported this evening.  Natasha has one last chance to appeal her fate and stay in the home she loves.  So when she randomly runs into Daniel, she knows that falling in love with him is not something she has time for.  Even if she wasn't facing this deadline, Natasha believes in science and what can be proven, not love.  Daniel, however, is sure that the universe has made everything work in order for them to meet and fall in love, despite any protests his family might have.

I was somewhat skeptical about this book after hearing the premise but I'm happy to report that I liked it much more than expected.  Okay, yes, it is a love story but Yoon handles it surely and makes it seem totally plausible that these two could deeply affect each other's lives even in just one day.  It is never too mushy and really focuses on their lives, personalities, and families more than their feelings of being swept away by each other.  A romance for people who don't much like romances.  So the relationship story is good but perhaps my favorite part of the book is actually the other chapters that are dropped in with explanations of random things or quick stories about secondary characters.  Those are the parts of the story that really made me smile about the book as a whole which felt like magical realism when it was all said and done, even though it was totally realistic. 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Jonathan has just arrived at Slabhenge Reform School to serve time for a crime he won't discuss.  The school is only reachable via a small boat as Slabhenge is a stone fortress built around an ancient lighthouse.  The headmaster of the school is a cruel man who enjoys punishing the boys and feeding them fairly disgusting food while he feasts.  Shortly after Jonathan arrives, however, a freak accident kills all the adults on the island and the boys decide to keep that a secret for a few days while they enjoy their unsupervised time.  But someone has to be in charge - don't they?  And will the new boss of Slabhenge be any better than the previous one?

This short book is loaded with creepy atmosphere.  I could feel the gloom and decay of Slabhenge pressing in on me as I read.  The Lord of the Flies comparison is accurate but the boys are not all good nor all bad.  Even the worst boy has some redeeming qualities which Gemeinhart uses Jonathan to point out to us as readers.  It is not a book my students are likely to pick up on their own, but it will be a winner when I sell it to them.

Flashfall by Jenny Moyer

Orion and her best friend/partner/love interest Dram are Subpars - miners working to extract enough cirium to earn their freedom from their difficult life and go live in the city.  Their outpost is right on the edge of the radiation laden flash curtain but Subpars are better able to tolerate the radiation than other humans.  Still, they can be overexposed and their are plenty of other dangers in the tunnels.  When some new people show up at their outpost, Orion begins to question their life and whether any of them will ever be able to escape from the mines.

A mining book.  Oh boy.  I don't think I've ever enjoyed any book I've read where the characters are miners or the book is set underground so that might be a personal issue.  This book did not change my mind about that setting, plus it left me cold in many other ways.  
  • I have no idea what the Flashfall was or what has brought about this life.  I don't care for didactic explanations in books, but I do like some sort of hint about the world in which we find ourselves.
  • The action is nonstop but not in a "wow, can't wait to see what happens next" way.  No, for me it was a "something else is happening but I don't know what it is nor what just happened before this new turn of events" way.  Just one deadly scenario after another.
  • I can dig (not in a mining way) a good uprising against the corrupt government book but there needs to be at least some sort of hope of success.  
  • I'm not a fan of stories where all sorts of characters sacrifice themselves in order to keep one or two main characters alive. The surviving characters usually do something stupid that makes all the sacrifices pointless.  If someone is willing to die to save you, make that count!
  • Although this is a unique-ish world, there are not really surprises in the overall storyline.  Romance between good friends, government that turns out to be oppressive and lying, tough heroine who defies the forces trying to kill her...  Seen it before.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Ghost is just his nickname, but Castle has been calling himself Ghost ever since the night he and his mom ran away from his dad who was trying to shoot them.  Ghost has been running in one way or another since then but he's not doing a great job at keeping out of trouble.  One day while he's hanging out after school he sees some kids warming up for track practice.  He feels an instant rivalry with a boy wearing expensive clothes, shoes and jewelry.  Ghost decides to run alongside the kids trying out and beats all of them which gets the coach's attention.  Coach offers Ghost a chance to join the team and he agrees but is surprised to find there's more to it than just running fast and Coach doesn't make exceptions to his rules no matter how talented you are.

I could sum up everything I have to say about this book with these words:  Jason Reynolds.  Everything he writes is multi-layered and beautiful and some part of every book makes me cry. Ghost is not a perfectly charming character - he is defensive, arrogant (defensively arrogant), gets in trouble at school, and does something seriously wrong pretty early on in the book - and yet I liked him and was rooting for him throughout.  He learns as he gets brought down a few pegs by Coach, another great character.  He finds out that others have their own, serious problems as well.  

Other great things about this book:
  • It's short so it won't scare off the kids who don't like to read.
  • It deals with characters who don't have much money.  Certainly not enough to just do whatever they want to do without thought about how much it costs.  There are very few books dealing with kids who are low income even though the majority of students at my school fall into that category.
  • Ghost's mother is working hard to keep them afloat but she is a strong mother who is still actively involved in raising her son.  We don't often see portrayals like this.  Generally, if a character in a book is poor, he or she also comes from a bad home.
  • It deals with track as the sport of choice.  I'm not sure that will be a selling point for my students, but I think it's something they can all appreciate if they give the book a chance. 
  • It has already been checked out constantly at my library so the kids are digging it.