Monday, October 30, 2017

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

Michael is living in Germany during World War II.  Although he is Irish, he is a member of the Hitler Youth because his parents are ambassadors to the country and Michael needs to look like he is sympathetic to the Nazis.  Plus, his position in the Hitler Youth gives him an opportunity to learn secret information that is helpful to the Allies since Michael and his parents are spies.  One of the things Michael learns about is Projekt 1065, a secret project to develop the first jet engine.  If the Germans can make the engine work their planes will dominate the skies and give them the advantage to win the war.  Michael uses his photographic memory to copy the plans and pass the information on to the Allies but his mission is further complicated when he helps rescue an injured soldier.

How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

Vicky was never outgoing in the first place, but since her best friend Jenna moved away, Vicky has become nearly invisible.  She goes out of her way to dress plainly and doesn't talk to anyone.  She still talks to Jenna every day but Jenna's new life seems to be going in a new direction when she begins posting pictures of herself on Instagram with popular girls and a cute boy.  Then comes the day when Jenna butt dials Vicky and Vicky overhears Jenna talking with her new friends about how pathetic Vicky is.  Devastated, Vicky decides to create a new, virtual life.  She puts on an outrageous wig and bright clothes and photoshops herself into all sorts of fun situations.  She names her new self Vicurious and begins attracting followers immediately.  In fact, Vicurious becomes so popular, so quickly, that Vicky is a little unsure what to do next and why so many people reacted so strongly to #alone and #ignored, but she decides to use her new found fame to help others like herself.

This book sounds like a light take on social media but it actually draws you in to some fairly deep topics.  I know that most teens can identify with feeling alone and ignored so it's not surprising that Vicurious touches such a nerve.  Roat also takes us into Vicky's real life as she slowly, very slowly, discovers who she is and how that has value even if she's not the outgoing person in school.  The message for teens (and adults) is great!  There's even an emotional climatic scene with Jenna that drives the points home even more and feels very realistic.  This was an unexpected gem!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Starr lives in a poor neighborhood but goes to a fancy school across town where she is one of the only minority students.  She has friends in both worlds but never talks much about her life at home with her white school friends.  While at a party in the neighborhood one night she runs into her old friend Khalil and accepts a ride home with him.  They are stopped by a police officer who believes Khalil is reaching for a nonexistent gun and shoots him while Starr watches her friend die on the street.  Starr wants to keep her presence at the shooting a secret from most of the world outside of her family, but she feels the effects of it on her.  She notices that she feels nervous when she's with her white boyfriend and she's offended by the things her friends at school say about Khalil as his story makes the news and he is branded as a thug and drug dealer.  When Starr finally decides to take a stand she is pulled even deeper into the controversy and finds it affecting some of her closest relationships.

I pre-ordered this book because the buzz was already so huge about it.  I started it on the day it was released but put it aside at that time after just a few pages because I knew I couldn't use it for a county wide reading program for which I was reading at that time due to the language and content, so I just got back to it recently.  Since its release, the book has only gotten bigger which is why I'm unhappy to say that I'm not over the moon about it.   All the parts of the core story of Khalil's death are so important - the shooting of an unarmed black boy, the demonizing of him in the press, his reasons for the life he was living, and Starr's PTSD and fear about speaking up - but the rest of book bogged down with all of the messages that Thomas crammed into it that came across to me as lectures rather than organic parts of the story.  In particular, I remember the scene where Starr's boyfriend asked why African-American people have such weird names.  The subsequent answer to that question really felt like an important fact to be learned rather than something that helped the story.  

I've seen quite a few reviews talk about reverse racism in the book and I want to address that.  The scene that seems to come up the most is when Starr is having problems with her boyfriend and tells him that part of the problem is that he is white.  I finished this book more than a month ago so I don't remember if Thomas actually uses the term PTSD, but it is clear to me that is what is happening to Starr.  Let's be clear:  THIS SCENE IS NOT AN EXAMPLE OF RACISM ON STARR'S PART.  She is having flashbacks to the horrific thing she witnessed and that has made her look at things in her life differently.  

I wasn't all that fond on Starr's father in his insistence that they continue to live in the 'hood when he could've moved them to a suburban neighborhood much earlier.  But that's not a criticism of the book or storyline, that's just my frustration at him for endangering his own family to make a point.  I get what he was trying to do with revitalizing from within, but it made me like him a lot less as a character.  

In summary, it's clear that Thomas has a strong voice and a lot to say.  I just wish she hadn't tried to put all of it into this one book. I think Starr's story would've been stronger if the book had been about 100 or more pages shorter.

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

 It is her 15th birthday and Speth is nervous about delivering her Last Day speech that will lead to her endorsements and adulthood.  Once you have given your speech, every word you say and every gesture you make costs you money.  All communication is owned by someone and you must pay the copyright owner to use the words and gestures.  Some basic words don't cost much but other words can be very expensive and must be avoided.  Speth's family is split up and in massive debt because her parents are working off a debt from an ancestor who downloaded music illegally.  But when it is Speth's time to deliver her speech, she doesn't say anything at all.  Her defiance at this important ceremony leads to lots of consequences for her family and ignites a resistance while also making her some powerful enemies.

I am fascinated with copyright law so when I read about this book I was caught up in the premise and ordered it up immediately.  As usually happens, media that has raised my expectations often ends up being a disappointment in the end.  The idea everything being copyright protected doesn't seem that far-fetched so I was totally along for the ride at first, enjoying the insta-lawsuits and thinking carefully about how I would weigh my words in this world.  But things began to go south for me as the book went along.  I think the author took on a difficult task by writing a protagonist who cannot speak.  We are privy to her thoughts, so that's helpful, but it's still hard to move some plot lines forward without any communication with other characters on her part.  One of the biggest issues I had was her unwillingness to speak even at times when she could or at times that, to me, seemed necessary.  Her zipping of her lips was not done purposefully to take a stand, it felt more like an impulsive action when she was overwhelmed by all that had happened right then.  As such, she was sort of drifting along and became the symbol of a revolution she hadn't planned.  I was shaking my head more than once about her continued silence and the consequences of it.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Warcross by Marie Lu

Hideo Tanaka is the genius who invented Warcross, a worldwide virtual reality game that puts you right in the action thanks to his neurolink glasses.  Emika has read everything about Hideo but never imagined she'd have the opportunity to meet him until she hacks into the opening of the Warcross Championships and attracts worldwide attention.  Now she is personally invited to join a Warcross team but more than that, Hideo has asked her to use her skills to help track down an even more experienced hacker named Zero who wants to disrupt the tournament.  Emika finds herself with a group of friends for the first time in a long time as well as possibly with a boyfriend.

It's tough to come up with a premise that hasn't already been done a bunch of times but Warcross delivers some new stuff.  The worldwide video game concept has been done but this still has the next twist of the neurolink which doesn't feel all that science-fictiony to me.  Totally not that far away but pretty damn scary at the same time.  And my scared sense of foreboding is not off base, either.  

I love Emika as a heroine.  She is legit strong and sure of herself with the skills to back it up.  I felt pretty sure early on that I knew where a couple of things were going but I hoped I was wrong.  Unfortunately, I was right and I'm still sad about that.  But I'm happy for the storyline overall because I admire authors who are willing to do the unpopular, but more realistic, thing. 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Will was there when his older brother Shawn was murdered last night and he's sure he knows who killed him.  Will also knows the three rules:  1.  No crying. 2.  No snitching. 3.  Get revenge. So the next morning he wrestles open Shawn's dresser drawer and takes the gun he knows is hidden there in order to follow rule three.  He just has to get through his ride down seven stories in the elevator which is not as easy as it sounds when he finds himself haunted by friends and family on every floor.

Don't let the fact that this is free verse and a quick read fool you into thinking it's easy.  Every word is important to the overall story and is obviously carefully planned.  Each of Will's ghosts has a message for him and Reynolds' massive talent is clear as he packs massive impact into just a few words.  The entire book is a masterpiece and I knew it while I was reading, but it was the last page that blew me away.  When I read the last two words in the book my stomach dropped and I felt chills running up and down my spine.  Literally. 

Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno

Lottie's entire family is devastated when her Aunt Helen dies young from cancer.  Although the loss is personal to them, Helen's death affects the rest of the world as well since she was the author of one of the most beloved book series of all time.  In her will, Helen has left a series of letters for Lottie, one to be opened each day.  The letters are some of her last thoughts along with some specific tasks for Lottie to do which push her out of her comfort zone.  Lottie has always worried about death but now more than ever and Helen tries to get Lottie living.

Parts of this book were tough for me to read because Lottie's worries are described so clearly and echo some of my own thoughts about disease and death.  In addition, her grieving for Helen is palpable as she works on going on.  I was especially moved by the scene with her dad who is going through his own grieving process about the loss of his sister.  Starting my review with all that makes the book sound like a real downer when in reality it is actually focused on enjoying life.  Lottie is uncomfortable with things she is doing but she does them and finds herself learning more with each task.  This is one of those fairly quiet books that draws you in without giving an easy hook with which to describe it. 

A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody

Ellison is not having a good Monday.  She forgot her umbrella so she looks terrible in her school picture.  Right before she's supposed to give a speech to the entire school for the class election, she eats something that has nuts in it and her entire face and tongue swell up.   And sure, the day started with a text from her beautiful boyfriend Tristan that said "We need to talk", but Ellison is sure she can turn things around during a dream date that night at the fair.  But instead, Tristan dumps her.  Ellie is sure that if she only had another chance she could totally make the day work out better.  The next morning, she gets the chance to have another Monday.  In fact, she gets an entire week of Mondays in which to change things up and make them work out perfectly.

There's nothing surprising here from other "Groundhog Day"-esque plotlines but that doesn't mean it's not still a bunch of fun.  Brody knows how to write super-likeable heroines who grow the right amount during the course of the book and keep me entertained along the way.  Ellison is no different, although she might be a little denser than some others when it comes to her realization about true love.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

Jasmine is a cheerleader and is at the top of her class thanks to all her hard work.  When she receives notice that she is one of the few high school seniors being recognized for her achievements she knows that she will have her choice of college scholarships.  But when she gets ready to apply, her parents reveal the shocking news that they never renewed their visas and now the entire family is in the United States illegally.  Jasmine will not be able to apply to any college and is possibly now facing deportation.  Determined to move on with her life, Jasmine joins the group going to Washington, D.C. to be recognized and while there, she runs into boy from back home who is the son of a congressman.  With a developing romance, Jasmine now has even more to fight for rather than going to live in the Philippines, a country where she has never lived.

The subject matter is definitely timely and is in some way based on the life of the author so I appreciate the book in those ways.  However, the length and the execution turned me off.  A story can't be all about being deported, but I felt like the main focus of the book was lost to the romance.  It was a bait and switch, promising me a book about the unfairness of immigration laws for some of our citizens but instead giving me a lackluster romance.  The couple was so quick to assume bad things about each other's motives that it felt the only connection they had was physical chemistry. On another note, how is it that Jasmine's parents didn't bother to tell her about their status a hundred times before this?  If she had no plans to go to college then maybe they could've kept this a secret but she has made it very clear that she expects big things out of her life.  I feel like the promising, relevant story got bogged down with too many side issues and way too many words.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson

Sachiko Yasui was a young girl living in Nagasaki, Japan when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city during World War II.  Surprisingly, she lived through the bombing but her life was never the same.  Several members of her family died from the initial attack and many others died later from complications of the radiation.  Sachiko managed to move forward with her life and become someone who could speak firsthand about the devastating effects of war and its weapons.  This book is a powerful and beautiful account of Sachiko's life and legacy and ought to be read by all young people.

Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Maddie's not having the best 18th birthday ever.  While at the convenience store the night she gives in to a suggestion from the clerk and buys a lottery ticket and to her surprise, she wins!  Now a millionaire, she is looking forward to how money will change her life:  her parents will be able to stop fighting, her brother will get out of debt and go back to school, and she can go to college wherever she wants.  But as people find out about her new found wealth Maddie finds they all want something from her and she's not sure who to trust.  Luckily, her crush at work doesn't seem to have a clue about the lottery win and Maddie wants to keep it that way.

This book is mostly just fun and light but there are some darker elements that didn't seem to fit as well to me.  For instance, I'm still worried about her brother who has made some bad decisions with his money and now what will he do?  I know a book has to have some conflict and it wouldn't be much of a story if all her problems were actually solved by winning the money, but I guess I wanted her issues to be easily resolved and cotton candy-ish.  Still, if I'm looking for a break from some grim dystopian reading, I would absolutely turn to Kasie West.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti

Hawthorne is hoping to skip a day of school and think she might've found a reason when she hears that her brother's ex-girlfriend, Lizzie Lovett, has gone missing.  Hawthorne never really liked Lizzie who is everything Hawthorne is not - popular, pretty, and happy.  But now she becomes obsessed with Lizzie and her current boyfriend, Enzo.  Soon Hawthorne is working at Lizzie's old job and consulting with Enzo about her theory that Lizzie might have turned into a werewolf.

Boy, this is an odd book with an unlikable protagonist.  I get it that Hawthorne is struggling in her own life so it makes sense that she would be pretty weird as a narrator, but that didn't make her any more fun to read as she engaged in self-destructive behavior.  I was waiting for something big to happen but there really wasn't any big twist.  That's more like real life, I know, but it made the story flat for me.  

The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction #1) by Laura Martin

Sky has lived in an underground compound all her life.  It hasn't been safe to live on the surface ever since dinosaurs were cloned and took over the world.  Despite the danger, Sky sneaks out of the compound on occasion to see if she can find any clues about her father who disappeared five years ago.  After all this time, Sky's best friend Shawn discovers a message in the one possession Sky's father left her.  The clue indicates he might be alive but the only way to know for sure is to leave the safety of the compound and venture onto the surface.

This is a great, fun middle grades adventure that also points out that humans can't control everything when they are fiddling around with science.  The dinosaurs are very, very bad which makes them super fun!  Sky is a good, strong heroine but it's a nice change of pace from other books that she doesn't just know everything.  In fact, she would be quickly dispatched by any number of dinos if not for a new ally who has more knowledge of the Earth's surface than she.  I've put the book on a sixth grade reading list and my students are eating it up!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Rosi and her young brother Bobo have lived their entire lives in a community of adults they call "Freds".  The Freds are nurturing and have taught the children rules for getting along and forming a society but they have been very clear in stating they are not the children's parents.  Now, suddenly, all the children are being returned to their biological parents without any explanation.  This ought to be good news but when the children return to their hometown, things are strange.  People avoid Rosi and it's clear that people with her eye color are ostracized.  Even her parents don't seem to like her but they dote on Bobo.  Some big secret is being kept from the children about their town and why they were with the Freds in the first place.

Just, ugh.  The secret is not great and it took way too long to get to the reveal.  And the time it took to get there was not compelling at all.  On top of that, after treating Rosi like shit the entire time she lived with them, it turns out there as a very good reason for treating her like shit and now we're supposed to understand and sympathize with the parents.  Nope.

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz

Amy Anne's family is chaotic and a lot of the responsibility for her sisters falls onto Amy Anne's shoulders.  That's why she loves to spend time after school reading quietly in the library.  But one day she tries to check out her favorite book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Mrs. Jones tells her the book has been banned from their library.  One parent has protested a list of 12 books in the school library and is asking to have them removed permanently.  Amy Anne goes to the school board meeting to talk about how much the books mean to her but she finds herself mute when it is time for her to speak, and the board votes to remove all the books from the library.  When Amy Anne loans her personal copy of one of the books to a friend at school, she gets an idea and is soon running a private library of all the banned books out of her locker.  But as the list of challenged books continues to grow, her locker isn't big enough to keep up and it's only a matter of time until someone finds out about what she's doing.

I was still absorbing the events in Refugee when out of the blue, here was another book by Alan Gratz.  This is a strong indictment of book banning subversively hidden inside a middle grades novel.  I love that Amy Anne has to work hard to (literally) find her voice.  How many of us are upset by something but have a hard time standing up to The Man about that issue?  Her ability to challenge this injustice grows a bit at a time until she is fierce!  Every book mentioned in the novel is the object of banning in real life which could lead to some great discussion about why people feel it is necessary to remove a title from everyone and outrage from students as they see some of their own favorite books being removed.  Although the book is definitely written for middle grades, it tackles serious subjects including the removal of the wonderful librarian - thank you, Alan, for such a strong characterization of librarians! - and the spinelessness of the school board.  And to top it off, there's a cameo by Dav Pilkey helping to stick it to the banners!

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie comes from a family of winners.  Her younger sister is already a TV star, her brother is a star soccer player and her grandfather has won a Congressional Medal of Honor.  Allie knows she needs to do something to add her name to the list of Velasco achievers.  When her teacher announces a contest, Allie is determined to be the winner and decides to document her great-grandfather's life.  But the path to winning her award is not smooth as she has to deal with her ex-best friend and new boy Victor who is full of surprises.

I really like Cervantes' voice for middle schoolers.  Both books I've read by her (Gaby Lost and Found) are authentic and don't sound like an adult trying to write like a girl in middle school.  Victor is a great character and provides a good lesson for Allie about making assumptions.  Lessons are learned, to be sure, but the story lets the reader figure things out without telling you what to think.