Saturday, August 26, 2017

Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Kacey has only lived in Broken Falls a few months after leaving her unstable mother to join her father's family.  She has made two close friends, Bailey and Jade, and is very close with her stepbrother Andrew and half sister Lauren but she worries about having to leave her new family or being rejected by her friends.  So when Bailey and Jade show up at her house and ask her to sneak out to take part in a seance, Kacey goes along rather than dealing with their anger.  The night after the seance Kacey's friends attend a party without her and Bailey goes missing during the night.  As one of Bailey's best friends, the police have a lot of questions for Kacey and it soon becomes clear they are doubtful about some of her answers.  But if Kacey is not responsible, who is?  And can she trust anyone close to her?

The answer is "no" in this psychological thriller that keeps you guessing for a good chunk of the book.  I had a glimmer of a guess pretty close to when the killer was revealed by the author, and I knew there was something going on with this character, but I didn't have it all worked out by any means.  Thomas slowly leads you through the mystery planting doubts about every character along the way, including Kacey herself.  Her perfect, close-knit family is slowly revealed to have more than its share of cracks in their facade and I didn't know what to believe about anyone.  In that regard, I enjoyed the book since I usually find myself guessing the twist fairly early on.  But I'm not sure that I enjoyed the book overall because the situation at the end left issues for everyone, forever, and I'm still obsessed with how their lives will now be shadowed by the events of the story.  So if you like those dark, not fully resolved endings for characters who have secret problems, this is the book for you.  As for me, I'm still thinking about it so that's usually a good sign.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds

Miles attends a private school where he lives with his best friend Ganke.  He's on scholarship for his room and board and while his parents are still struggling to keep up with his tuition, they are happy to give Miles the opportunity to get out of the neighborhood that led to his uncle Aaron becoming a criminal.  Besides struggling with expectations - his parents' and his own - Miles also has to deal with his secret identity as Spider Man.  After being bitten by an enhanced spider at his uncle's house, Miles developed spider-like abilities which he uses to help stop crime.  His father and Ganke know he's the Spider Man, but no one else does.  Lately, Miles' spidey-sense seems to be malfunctioning.  Every time he is in his history class with Mr. Chamberlain he feels it buzzing but when he leaves class to see what's happening, it stops.  Eventually, Miles wonders if it's Mr. Chamberlain himself who is setting it off.  He's definitely a mean teacher but he has also recently been writing racist statements on the board and talking about the benefits of slavery during the Civil War.  

Jason Reynolds, as always, is amazing and has presented us with a layered story which will be a surprise to those picking this up just to read about Spider Man.  Just as he did in When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds fills the neighborhood barbershop with strong characters who really make you feel the local vibe and issues plaguing their streets.  There are never any throw-away characters in a Reynolds book and there are always layers of storytelling.  This being a superhero book, of course there is the somewhat dark origin story.  But on top of that there are the issues with being not-white in American society in education, the prison system, profiling, and more, all of which are brought into the story without a blatant arrow pointing them out. The only problem I have with the book is that it doesn't focus enough on Spider Man.  Miles and his problems are fully explored but the superhero aspect of his life mostly takes place pretty close to the end of the book.  I would've liked to have seen more webslinging action throughout as well as a little more lead up to the evil big boss. 

Hello, Sunshine by Leila Howland

After being rejected from 11 colleges Becca decides to try to make it as an actress in Hollywood.  She drives out west with her boyfriend who will be attending Stanford.  The two have made plans to meet halfway between their new homes on a regular basis but when he drops her off, Alex tells Becca that he believes they should take a break.  Heartbroken, broke, and all alone Becca tries to live her dream in a rundown apartment.  Luckily, she has the help of two neighbors:  Marisol, another aspiring actress who gives her lots of hints on what to do, and Raj, a student at a local film school who hopes to be a screenwriter.   With money running out fast Becca has to navigate her way through the confusing world of stardom where you have to have an agent to get an agent and you can't get anywhere without expensive headshots.

I kept waiting for Becca to fall on her face with her lack of expertise or for someone to betray her but this book really was sunshiny, which was exactly what I needed.  I was just looking for something fun to read that didn't take much or any brain power and this fit the bill.  Becca is definitely naive about making it in Hollywood but she was willing to learn and work hard.  Her ascent to some breaks was still a bit accelerated, but we did get to see her paying some dues along the way.  Her two new friends are loyal and so helpful without being secretly jealous or bitchy which was also surprising.  There's not a lot of arc to this story nor much conflict, but it is light and fun which is what you need to break up the apocalyptic dystopias at times.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In Some Other Life by Jessica Brody

Kennedy loves journalism and is currently obsessed with winning a major award for her school newspaper for the fourth year in a row.  She is also preparing for her interview at Columbia, one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country.  Things at home are going well too as her father finally gets recognized as the amazing artistic photographer he is.  But Kennedy's seemingly perfect world falls apart when she catcher her best friend kissing her boyfriend of three years.  Distraught, Kennedy wonders "what if".  You see, three years ago she received a letter offering her a spot at a excellent private academy in town but she turned it down in order to stay closer to her boyfriend.  Now she has to wonder if she made the right decision.  Thanks to a bump on the head, she is going to get a chance to find out what her life would be if she'd taken the other path.

Obsessed with "Hamilton" the musical, I am about halfway through reading the Chernow biography of Hamilton that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda and I needed an easy, quick break.  When I saw that Jessica Brody - one of my favorite YA authors - had something new out, I knew it was exactly what I needed.  Kennedy's story is not new but it is well done and reassuringly familiar just like Brody's other books.  Of course she discovers that the grass is not necessarily greener but her other life is not as horrible as you would expect and the friend she has admired from afar is a nice girl, not the stuck up snob I expected.  Comfortable and fun like dozens of previous variations on this theme. 

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Days before their wedding Alice politely invites a new client to the ceremony.  Surprisingly, he accepts the invitation and he and his wife bring a perplexing gift:  A box inviting Jake and Alice to join a group call The Pact.  When a Pact consultant shows up, she requires Jake and Alice to sign a contract agreeing to abide by the rules of the Pact which is described as a way to keep marriages vital and strong.  Not following the rules will have consequences.  The newlyweds decide to sign up and at first the rules seem easy enough and they make sense:  each partner has to bring the other a gift once a month; always answer calls from your partner; plan a trip together at least once a quarter to develop some shared experiences.  But then Alice gets in trouble for working late too often and is taken off to a Pact prison for a few days as punishment for her transgression and the true face of The Pact begins to emerge.

A reminder to myself of why I only read 1-3 adult books a year. It was interesting enough to keep me reading but the punishments were just completely unbelievable even though I had given myself over to the unbelievable premise in the first place. In fact, the premise is the totally fun part of this book and I knew it was going to go bad very quickly so I was willing to go with the insanity. Even with that mindset, I was completely not buying the things that were happening. And the punishments were very harsh right from the get go. I get that no one ever leaves The Pact, but it really seems like we as readers should've been able to relish the slowly growing horror of the consequences for marital infractions. After all, the initial rules of The Pact feel completely reasonable so make us buy in to the ideal and then slowly turn over the stone to see all the squirmyness beneath it.

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Sophie's friend Jay has added a Ouija board app to his phone and insists that they play with it.  Not knowing anyone else to call, Sophie asks to hear from her cousin Rebecca who died several years before.  The Ouija board seems to respond and lots of scary things happen in the diner where they are playing including Rebecca's spirit saying that Jay will die that night, a prediction that comes true.  Still reeling from his death, Sophie goes to spend a couple of weeks with her cousins in Scotland.  Her family lives in a former school where several students had serious accidents and a teacher died.  Life for Sophie's family has also been filled with tragedy  Besides Rebecca's death, her male cousin's hand was seriously burned, a cat died in a fire, her aunt is in an asylum, the youngest daughter is afraid of her own bones, and the cousin closest in age to Sophie vaccilates between being the nicest person ever and manipulative shows.  And what about all those Frozen Charlotte dolls that have been in the house for decades that seem to talk and move...?

Like much horror, this is not the finest work of literature ever but it is horribly, wonderfully creepy.  The dolls alone are terrifying and yet they end up being less dangerous than some other things in the house.  Why Sophie's uncle would stay in the house is beyond me and why he is so oblivious to the talking toys and ghosts all around them is another mystery.  I was kept guessing as to the real source of the danger when in most books it is very obvious so that was fun.  It can be so difficult to find true horror for middle school ad this totally fills the bill.  Bonus:  it will be a breeze to sell just on the Ouija board alone. 

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

Jena is in charge of the line, a group of seven girls who twist their bodies into the narrowest of cracks in order to crawl into the mountain in search of the stone their village needs to stay alive throughout long winters.  In order to join the line you must be small so families are delighted when their baby daughters are born tiny.  For those who are not born small, the Mothers of the village can perform surgery to help decrease a girl's size.  Being part of the line is a privilege but it is also advantageous since families of the line get an extra share of the mined materials which can mean the difference between life and death when snowed in during the winter.  Jena's natural parents are both dead but she has a loving home with a good friend.  When her adopted mother has an extremely small premature baby, Jena overhears some comments and gets some information that makes her begin to question the Mothers' tactics and what is happening in their village.

Mining and tunneling already give me the creeps but the vivid descriptions of the spaces "the line" go into in this book made it hard for me to breathe. The mystery of what has happened with Jena's mother and father is carefully revealed along with the truth of the Mothers as the book builds with a slow burn.  This is a messed up society where the author trusts the reader to be appropriately shocked without any sensationalism.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase has just woken up from a coma after falling off the roof of his house.  He remembers a lot of things but not the important ones like who his parents are, what his name is, and who he was before the accident.  But even though he can't remember his previous life, other people can.  His dad is obsessed with Chase resuming his place as a football star.  A girl he doesn't even know dumps frozen yogurt on him.  His best friends can't wait to include him in their "jokes" on the other students.  And lots of people at school seem to be nervous whenever he's around.  It seems that Chase has a decision to make:  resume his old life or start fresh?

I wasn't expecting much from this because Korman is not generally too deep and the reviews put this book more at the upper elementary level rather than middle school but I enjoyed it much more than anticipated.  I've seen the story before but this was handled well with a good look through Chase's eyes while prompting the reader to question who you would be if you didn't know who you already were.  Chase's growth into a decent person was believable as were the reactions of his former friends and enemies.  The only big problem I had with the whole story was his dad at the end.  After a whole book of macho posturing and an obvious willingness to bend the rules at any cost, his heartfelt speech was more literary device than sincere.

Want by Cindy Pon

Zhou and his close friends are Meis - people who are too poor to purchase the special suits that protect people from the pollution and sicknesses that are killing the citizens of Taipei.  Zhou's own mother was one of the victims of the rampant diseases and he is determined to change things starting with taking down Jin Corp and its corrupt owner.  The first step is to infiltrate the Yous, the wealthy citizens of Taipei, and get close to Jin's daughter.  When Zhou meets her, he is shocked to find out that he has a prior connection to her and that his feelings for her are going to make it difficult to use her to achieve his mission.

This is a unique world that is not very far removed from our current life.  There are just enough sci fi elements to make this world intriguing without being so many that I found myself trying to figure out what was happening. I loved all the characters - good guys and the nasty bad guy - and even my hardened heart was not turned off by the romance because it seemed natural rather than just added so there would be a romance.  Even the romance between two secondary characters was natural and carefully depicted as wonderfully loving. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Exo by Fonda Lee

Donovan is on a routine patrol with his partner when they get a tip about a group of underground activists who are opposed to the ruling aliens on Earth.  When they go to investigate, Donovan is shot and captured by the Sapience rebels who hope to use him as a bargaining chip for their demands.  Donovan is not only a soldier with an exocel - a body that is fused with alien technology that helps him defend himself and heal quickly - he is also the son of the Prime Liaison.  Donovan has close relationships with the aliens in charge and sees no problems with their rule but he is drawn to one of the young rebels.  His core beliefs are shaken even more when he finds out that his long lost mother is one of the leaders of Sapience. 

This is a book I should've loved what with the sci fi and cyborgs but I found myself rolling my eyes and wondering what was happening more often than not.  In particular, I am still not clear on what the word "Erze" means.  It appears to refer to a group of people who are bonded but also to a type of training but also seems to take the place of "God" in some of the dialogue.  I just wasn't invested in Donovan nor in the rebel group.  The one concept that did intrigue me was the idea of a totally different alien force coming and taking over Earth if this group abandoned it.  Something new to think about...

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

 Alex is 11 and on his way to a festival where he is going to launch the rocket he built into space.  He has been communicating online with others who are headed to the festival and has made all his plans to get there, along with his dog Carl Sagan.  Just like his hero, the human scientist Carl Sagan, Alex is planning to send messages to aliens about what life on Earth is like so he is keeping a running commentary about what he is doing.  Things don't go as planned at the festival but he learns that there is a man with the same name as his supposedly dead father living in Las Vegas and, with the help of some new friends, he delays his return home to go meet this man.

Alex is clearly labeled as 11 years old but I'm not sure the author knows exactly what an 11 year old is actually like.  At times Alex is incredibly bright and knows tons of things that are unusual for someone his age.  At other times he is unbelievably immature and naive about things.  For instance, he is totally clueless about what is happening with his mother which just doesn't ring true to me at all.  I've worked with thousands of kids during my career and the ones from homes with messed up parents know that their parents have issues and are actively covering up those problems to others.  I can suspend my disbelief that the adults he runs into are just helpful people and not super predators, but I couldn't get over the stream of consciousness ramblings of Alex as the book wore on.  It was cute at first when he would ramble for quite awhile along the lines of "first this happened and then that happened and then this other thing happened" but it got pretty grating to me and was just a further example that he was fairly young in his thoughts. 

Between Two Skies by Joanne O'Sullivan

Evangeline loves her life in a small town on the edge of New Orleans.  She has two good friends and loves to escape to her own private fishing/thinking spot out on the Bayou.  Other kids at school dream of getting out of Bayou Perdu after graduation but Evangeline just wants to follow in her father's footsteps and fish for a living.  When people start talking about Hurricane Katrina, her family decides to evacuate even though they are skeptical about how bad it will be in the end.  When the storm clears they learn that Bayou Perdu has been leveled and they are forced to start life over in a new, large, landlocked city.  Every member of the family has to start a new life and find a new role from who they were before.  Evangeline's adjustment is slightly easier when she runs into Tru, a boy she met just once before the hurricane but who is someone she would like to know better.

I loved the depiction of Evangeline's life in Bayou Perdu at the beginning of the book.  It's hard for me to imagine wanting to live in a small town in the south since my experience is much more big town with fewer bugs and biting things, but O'Sullivan paints a clear picture of how much the culture of her town makes up who Evangeline is.  I could feel it and it's a palpable feeling of loss when she learns that there is nothing left and that families are asked to stay wherever they are and begin their lives there.  Other Hurricane Katrina books I've read have always been from the perspective of someone who staying in Louisiana so I liked seeing the effects on one of the "lucky" people who got out before the devastation. 

But then the author lost me as the book took a solid turn into average teen romance.  There are still some references to what has been lost as Evangeline tries to find her friend who stayed behind and as her sister works to figure out who she is now, but mostly the story becomes about her feelings for Tru.  I would've much preferred to continue the main focus on the path of rebuilding a life rather than worrying about whether a boyfriend was just stringing her along the entire time.